Many people have reservations when they hear criminal defendants claim to be innocent even though they pled guilty. Some can't imagine anything that could convince them to plead guilty to a crime they didn't commit.
A Junction City, Wisconsin, man has been free on bail since a Dane County judge overturned his conviction 11 months ago. Richard Beranek, now 59, was convicted in 1990 on charges of rape, battery and burglary, even though six witnesses testified that he was in North Dakota when the crime took place. He was sentenced to 243 years in prison and served 29 years.
When Francisco Carrillo, Jr., was falsely convicted of a fatal drive-by shooting, it was the result of an improper eyewitness identification. A Sheriff's deputy brought in the 15-year-old eyewitness, showed him a single photo and said it was their lead suspect.
We have written extensively on this blog and elsewhere about faulty forensic science contributing to wrongful convictions. Numerous instances of crime lab scandals between 2000 and 2008, including multiple instances of fraud and error, resulted in Congress funding an in-depth investigation and review of the forensic science disciplines and related forensic laboratory practice.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, at least 139 people were exonerated of crimes in the U.S. last year. Some 2,100 have been exonerated since 1989, when DNA evidence was first used to exonerate someone. Today, people are being found innocent using a variety of methods that don't always involve DNA, but the principle remains the same: Sometimes, the criminal justice system convicts innocent people.
David Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001, but it seems that conviction was wrongful. The state said he shot a woman from his hometown in 2000. The victim was killed outside a bar she owned with her fiancée, perhaps over $300 in receipts. Robinson was sentenced to life without parole.
When evidence of a convicted person's actual innocence comes forward, we imagine that prosecutors immediately ask a judge to void the conviction and release the defendant. We imagine the judge apologizing on behalf of the state. Later, depending on the circumstances, the defendant might be compensated for the time they spent imprisoned unjustly.
Demetrius Smith always insisted he was not involved in the 2008 shooting he was convicted of. He never agreed to plead guilty. He entered what is known as an "Alford plea," which is essentially a no contest plea. The defendant maintains his or her innocence while acknowledging the state has a convincing case.
Launched by CBS in 2000, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" has been called the most successful television series of all time. Between the original series, which ran for five seasons, and spinoffs that include "CSI: Miami," "CSI: NY" and "CSI: Cyber," the TV brand has generated 800 episodes, spawned a number of comic books, video games and novels, and served as the inspiration for a traveling museum exhibit.
ProPublica has produced some great work in the past year on the tragic consequences of prosecutors who are hell-bent on convicting individuals of crimes even when the evidence is thin or clearly suspect.