When a group of jurors hand down a verdict, it’s nice to think they get it right. Headlines that read, “Murderer found guilty, sentenced to life in prison,” are nice to see after a lengthy proceeding following a violent crime. When someone who has committed a murder, rape, or crime against a child, it is my sincerest hope that those responsible are held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, jurors (or judges, in bench trials) don’t always get it right.
I suppose as a disclaimer, this is not directed toward area folks or events. I wanted to stray away from local elections and Obamacare, so I thought of something completely random.
A while back I wrote a piece addressing my viewpoint on crimes lacking a victim. I mentioned activist Adam Kokesh and how he was body slammed and arrested for dancing in the Jefferson Memorial. I wrote about instances where parents were cited for allowing their children to operate lemonade stands without a permit. These types of crimes are mala prohibita, or illegal because a piece of paper states they’re illegal.
Here, I’d like to refer to crimes that are mala in se – crimes that are wrong or evil in nature. Murders and rapes fall under this category. When the evidence suggests a defendant is guilty, and the prosecution can show beyond a reasonable doubt that is the case – juries often find the defendant guilty of the charges.
However, it is all too common for mistakes to be made. Mistakes that lead to the wrongful caging of innocent human beings.
Wrongful imprisonment can stem from incorrect eyewitness testimony, perjury, misconduct of lawyers and/or law enforcement, and sometimes the jury just “gets it wrong.”
Whatever the case may be, one mistake is too many.
Put yourself in the shoes of Darryl Hunt. Or Wilton Dedge. Calvin Willis. Roy Brown. Nicholas Yarris. Steven Barnes. Ronald Cotton ...Okay, I’ll stop there, but I could go on for inches and inches.
The above named were all convicted of dangerous, violent crimes. Crimes it all turns out they – in fact – did not commit. All served years in a cage for these crimes.
Darryl Hunt is a North Carolina man who was convicted by a jury of the 1984 murder of Deborah Sykes, a newspaper copy editor. Sykes was 25 at the time of her death, and was raped and stabbed 16 times while on her way to work one early morning in August.
Hunt was arrested after he was identified in a photo lineup by a man who said he witnessed Sykes with an African American man that morning. Johnny Gray, a local man with a criminal history, was found to be the individual who called 9-1-1 the morning of the crime to report it to police. Gray first identified a different man in a photo lineup as the man attacking Sykes, but when he learned Hunt was named as a suspect, he changed his mind and identified Hunt. Hunt’s girlfriend initially told police Hunt was with her at the time of the crime, but after being arrested on outstanding larceny charges, she changed her mind in custody and said Hunt admitted to her that he committed the crime. Even though she recanted that statement before the trial, the prosecution presented her statements to the jury.
Hunt testified on his own behalf that he did not know the victim, nor did he commit the crime.
Hunt was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Friends and supporters formed the “Free Darryl Hunt Fund.”
His conviction was overturned in 1989 by the NC Supreme Court because of the girlfriend’s testimony. He was released on bond, with another trial pending, and was offered a plea deal. If he were to plead guilty to second degree murder, he would be granted time served and released.
Why would an innocent man accept such an offer?
Hunt turned it down and prepared for another trial. This trial took place in a different county with a special prosecutor. The jury found him guilty after only three hours of deliberations. Most of the witnesses remained the same, except for a couple of men from prison that testified Hunt admitted to them he killed the woman.
Hunt was sentenced to life in prison. Again.
Ten years after the crime – persistent on proving innocence and justice being served – Hunt’s defense filed for DNA testing to be done. Hunt’s DNA did not match the DNA found in the victim.
Regardless, his appeals were rejected and he remained in prison.
Hunt was not exonerated until 2004. He had spent 19 years in prison, ten of which were after DNA evidence excluded him.
Can someone tell me where the justice is in that? I don’t care if the “mistakes” are few and far between … that is nearly 20 years of a life wasted.
Hunt’s case is far from the only one. Nicholas Yarris spent more than 25 years on death row. In solitary confinement. That’s how old I am. He spent more time than I have been alive alone in a cage for something he didn’t even do. The real perpetrator for his crime … still hasn’t been caught.
A Utica man, Steven Barnes, served almost two decades in prison for rape and murder charges.
Before a Utica jury, a forensic analyst testified that no fingerprints collected from Barnes’ vehicle matched the victim’s. Truck prints from the crime scene and Barnes’ truck were compared, and did not match. Several witnesses for the defense testified Barnes was at the local bowling alley at the time of the crime. His polygraph returned inconclusive. Two hairs recovered from his vehicle were stated to be microscopically similar to the victim but dissimilar to Barnes.
At any rate, Barnes was found guilty, sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. After serving almost 20 of those years, was cleared of the charges following DNA testing that showed he did not rape or kill the woman. He was 42 years old when he was released.
Seriously, try to imagine what that must do to a person. To know you didn’t do anything wrong, but for 12 strangers to say you did, and for a court to throw you aside because, “Well, he’s the best we’ve got.”
There are more than a thousand cases just like the few I mentioned above. In some cases, the actual offenders have been apprehended. Others, the perpetrator is still at large.
Closing a case for the sake of holding someone responsible is hardly justice. Giving the wrongly convicted some monetary compensation for the time they lost is hardly righting the wrong of the system.
I guess something I’d like to stress is for folks to try to always be at the top of their game. Both victims and witnesses incorrectly identify individuals as their perpetrators. Pay attention to your surroundings. I know I personally would benefit from reading this to myself as a reminder to pay better attention. I honestly couldn’t tell you my best friend’s eye color. Or how tall she is.
I highly recommend the book ‘Picking Cotton,” as it addresses victim identification, and is pretty touching.
Law enforcement and lawyers make mistakes. Things happen.
But you know what … they shouldn’t happen when lives are stake.
As I was trying to think of a way to end this, I overheard in the background Rue McClanahan – Blanche Devereaux from The Golden Girls – say, “The justice system in America is an imperfect and sluggish piece of antiquated machinery.”
So fitting, Blanche. So fitting.