Must Read True Crime Books on Wrongful Convictions
How many innocent people are in prison? According to a conservative estimate by the Innocence Project, approximately 1% of prisoners, about 20,000 people, are innocent. However, they came up with that estimate by extrapolating from DNA exonerations. There are false convictions that don't involve DNA, such as people convicted of drug crimes based on inaccurate roadside drug tests. In 2018, a sheriff in Florida named Raimundo Atesiano was sentenced to three years in prison for ordering his officers to frame black men for unsolved cases.
In the Chicago Tribune Commentary Why the innocent end up in prison by John Grisham, he says:
"The rate of wrongful convictions in the United States is estimated to be somewhere between 2 percent and 10 percent. That may sound low, but when applied to an estimated prison population of 2.3 million, the numbers become staggering. Can there really be 46,000 to 230,000 innocent people locked away? Those of us who are involved in exoneration work firmly believe so."
This isn't a small problem and it could potentially happen to any of us.
This first set of books is about individuals who were either victims of wrongful convictions or caught up in situations where they were at risk of a wrongful conviction. These kinds of books give an in-depth look at what can go wrong and the effect it can have on a person's life.
Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption
by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino & Ronald Cotton
In 1984, Ronald Cotton, a black man was falsely accused of raping a white woman named Jennifer Thompson. He was sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years. A few months into his prison sentence he saw another prisoner who looked just like him. He realized that this other man Bobby Poole had to have been Thompson's attacker and his conviction was a result of mistaken identity. The book tells the stories of both Thompson and Cotton. She starts out describing the horrific attack that destroyed her sense of security and how she was so certain she had picked the right man out of a lineup. Cotton details his experiences in prison and his attempts to gain his release. He served an eleven year sentence before DNA proved his innocence. DNA also proved Bobby Poole was Thompson's attacker.
Ronald faced many difficulties adjusting to life on the outside and Jennifer had to grapple with the guilt of mistakenly sending him to prison due to misidentification. Two years later, Ronald and Jennifer met and became close friends. The lead detective was also devastated by the part he played. He was a good cop, yet he also got it wrong.
Poole committed twenty more crimes before he was apprehended. He even returned months later to attack one woman a second time. To quote Jennifer Thompson,
"When Ronald Cotton was exonerated, I realized there had been other victims, and I told audiences about this. I’d say, ‘when someone is wrongfully convicted, there is a guilty person on the street committing more crimes,’ and people would look at me funny and say, ‘Oh my God, I never thought about that.’"
Wrongful convictions don't just harm the innocent person serving time and their loved ones. They also put the public in danger.
Convenient Suspect: A Double Murder, a Flawed Investigation, and the Railroading of an Innocent Woman
by Tammy Mal
The brutal murder of Joann Katrinak and her three month old son Alex is a fascinating case but one that isn't widely known. Probably because until a few years ago everyone seemed to be convinced that the woman convicted of the crime was definitely guilty. When Tammy Mal set out to write this book she was convinced that Patricia Rorrer had indeed killed Joann and Alex. This was because a hair found in Joann's car tied Rorrer to the crime. But when Mal received FBI documentation for the case, she made a shocking discovery. No testable hair samples were ever found. There was only one explanation. Hair given to the police as samples got mixed up with crime scene hairs. Mal discovered that four hairs Rorrer had given to the police were unaccounted for. She also discovered that the case was littered with all kinds of problems. A police officer said his job was threatened by the prosecutor if he didn't lie on the stand at Rorrer's trial. Exonerating evidence wasn't given to the defense, witnesses were ignored (including one who was physically attacked by a police officer for trying to tell what he saw), alibi witnesses weren't believed, DNA evidence that was cleaned before it could be tested. Mal went from writing about a brutal murderess to an innocent woman who was railroaded by the authorities. Rorrer is still serving a life sentence. Rorrer had a baby daughter when she was arrested who had to grow up without her mother. I've written more extensively about her case here:
Exit to Freedom
by Calvin C. Johnson Jr.
Johnson spent 16 years in five Georgia prisons until DNA cleared his name. Unlike many people who are wrongfully convicted, Johnson was educated and from a middle class family. But that didn't protect him from racial prejudice. He was charged with two brutal sexual assaults and convicted by an all-white jury (which couldn't properly be called a jury of his peers). A few weeks later he was put on trial for another assault in front a racially mixed jury. He was acquitted in that case despite all the same witnesses and evidence being presented. Like with Ronald Cotton, Johnson was misidentified by the victims. Physical evidence that cleared him was ignored by the prosecutor and the jury. Johnson became a member of the inaugural board of directors for the Innocence Project.
The Central Park Five
by Sarah Burns
This book is a companion to the Ken Burns documentary of the same name. The Central Park Five is probably one of the most well known cases involving wrongful convictions and coerced confessions. But it's not just about how individuals can find themselves serving time for a crime they didn't commit. It's also about the role the media (and even Donald Trump) played in their convictions. Matias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer, later admitted he committed the crime and DNA connected him to it. Reyes also knew details only the attacker could have known.
On the night of April 19, 1989, a jogger named Trisha Meili was brutally attacked in New York's Central Park. She was so badly injured she was in a coma for 12 days and had no memory of the attack. Four African American and one Hispanic juveniles were arrested. There were a number of attacks in Central Park that night involving about 30 perpetrators. The five were believed to have been involved in some of those attacks.
Some people still insist the five were involved in the attack even if they didn't rape Meili. However, there's no physical evidence tying them to the crime and their accounts of the attack (confessions) are inconsistent. Reyes also says he was the lone attacker. Incriminating statements made by some of the five to the police which they interpreted as being related to the attack on Meili seem to have been references to other incidents in that park that night.
The Wrong Guys: Murder, False Confessions, and the Norfolk Four
by Tom Wells
The Norfolk Four, Derek Tice, Joseph Dick Jr., Danial Williams, and Eric Wilson were convicted for the 1997 rape and murder of Michelle Moore Bosko in Norfolk, Virginia. Her body was discovered when her husband Billy Bosko returned home and found her stabbed to death. In 2016, a federal judge decided they were wrongly convicted based on false confessions. Omar Ballard admitted he committed the crime alone and only his DNA was found. Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted the four pardons in 2017.
The four men confessed to the crime, they say under duress, but their accounts were inconsistent with each other and with the physical evidence. One man confessed to breaking into the Bosko's apartment to commit the crime even though there was no evidence of a break-in. The men were also unable to describe the murder weapon in their confessions.
Even after the police had arrested Ballard, received a confession that matched the physical evidence, and matched his DNA to the crime scene, they still insisted the other four men were present despite nothing to indicate it. Ballard also had a history of violence against women.
by Tonya Craft
Tonya Craft, a small town kindergarten teacher, was acquitted of 22 charges related to child molestation and sexual battery. Her story is a shocking example of how the authorities and people with a grudge can conspire against an individual. Luckily for Craft, the jury didn't blindly buy the case against her.
Not only was there police and prosecutorial misconduct in the case, the judge was close friends with the prosecutor. The judge also represented Craft's ex-husband during their divorce and refused to recuse himself from her trial. He disallowed exculpatory evidence and testimony while allowing the prosecutor to launch inflammatory attacks on Craft. The case has been compared to the McMartin preschool case where adults convinced children they were molested and those children began to believe it.
Craft lost her job, her home and custody of her kids. Her ex-husband and two mothers from prominent families she had a falling out with were the sources of the allegations. Craft corrected their kids at a birthday party when they were rude to her daughter which set hostilities with these moms in motion. Things worsened with one of those mothers when Craft informed her that her daughter wasn't ready for 1st grade. The mother believed this was payback by Craft despite others backing up her child's lack of readiness. Craft filed a $25 million lawsuit against her accusers.
This all occurred in a small Georgia town. It was prominent families against a teacher who had moved to the area just a few years before. People in positions of authority chose to immediately believe the accusers. According to Craft, detectives were hostile toward her from the get-go instead of running an impartial investigation.
The Abuse of Innocence: The McMartin Preschool Trial
by Paul Eberle
The McMartin preschool case didn't involve convictions but Ray Buckey spent five years in jail awaiting trial. The case went on for six years until all charges were dropped in 1990. Mass hysteria, pack journalism and suggestive questioning that lead to false memories were factors in the case. The first allegation against the McMartin preschool came in 1983 from Judy Johnson who was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She became convinced her son had been sodomized by Ray Buckey and her husband because the boy had painful bowel movements. She also made other strange allegations.
Buckey wasn't prosecuted due to lack of evidence but the police sent a letter out to all parents who had children in the preschool anyway. In the letter they said, "Please question your child to see if he or she has been a witness to any crime or if he or she has been a victim." Soon other parents were contacting the police reporting that their children had been fondled, sodomized, and forced to participate in pornographic films. There were even reports of babies and animals being slaughtered in front of the children as part of satanic rituals. No evidence to back up any of these claims was ever found.
While police and therapists didn't intentionally convince children to fabricate stories of abuse, the effects of their behavior was devastating to both the falsely accused and the children. Although Kee MacFarlane, an unlicensed therapist who interviewed the children, was accused of bullying children who denied abuse. The methods used to interview the children have been discredited.
Justice Failed: How “Legal Ethics” Kept Me in Prison for 26 Years
by Alton Logan
The legal ethics in the title refers to attorney-client privilege. The real killer Andrew Wilson told his attorney he was the one who shot an off-duty Cook County corrections officer at a McDonalds in Chicago. The lawyers couldn't reveal this fact until the client died years later even though that client was already serving a life sentence for other crimes. Alton Logan was locked up for a crime he didn't commit for twenty six years.
How Miscarriages of Justice Occur
This second set of books explains how miscarriages of justice happen, what can be done to prevent them, and how to get innocent people released.
False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent
by Jim and Nancy Petro
Jim Petro, a former Attorney General of Ohio, explores real cases, and addresses the causes of wrongful conviction. He also addresses eight myths that inspire false confidence in the justice system.
Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution, and Other Dispatches From the Wrongly Convicted
"... a horrible crime is committed in your neighborhood, and the police knock at your door. A witness swears you are the perpetrator; you have no alibi, and no one believes your protestations of innocence. You're convicted, sentenced to hard time in maximum security, or even death row, where you await the executioner's needle."
Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld from the Innocence Project have helped to free convicted people through the use of DNA testing. In this book they detail ten of these stories.
Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong
by Brandon Garrett
This book covers 250 cases of wrongful conviction where the accused was cleared by DNA evidence. Causes include "suggestive eyewitness procedures, coercive interrogations, unsound and unreliable forensics, shoddy investigative practices, cognitive bias, and poor lawyering."