One day in Dallas, a Bible study group lit upon this question: Where have you seen the power of the Holy Spirit? The group was a diverse one, a mix of well-off white congregants from The Church of the Incarnation and African-Americans from the nearby Roseland Homes housing project who were tied to Central Dallas Ministries. Many said that they’d felt the Holy Spirit in church; others described glorious, personal moments. Then Jalah Parker, a black woman in her 60s, raised her hand. “Well, for me,” she said shyly, “it was when Craig Watkins was elected district attorney of Dallas County.”
Watkins is the first African-American DA in Texas history. When he took office in 2008, three things happened right off the bat. First, he was asked to authorize the destruction of evidence from old court cases — he said no. Second, a man was exonerated for a crime he didn’t commit. (Watkins apologized to him, in court, on behalf of the justice system.) Third, he got a call from the Innocence Project, the group that, since 1992, has been trying to overturn wrongful convictions through DNA testing and the reexamination of evidence. They asked to go over some past cases — he said yes. Soon after, Watkins launched his own Conviction Integrity Unit. And Dallas County now has overturned more convictions than most states.
I learned all this from a beautiful book called “Tested: How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope” (Brown, 2010). I say beautiful, not just for the stories, but for the moving black-and-white portraits by photographer Deborah Luster, whose work hangs in the Smithsonian. The author is Peyton Budd, who wrote “Tested” with her mother, Dorothy Budd, a former sex crimes prosecutor and a deacon at The Church of the Incarnation. Dorothy was there the day Parker spoke of the Holy Spirit and Watkins. It shook her to the core. And this book springs from that epiphany. As Parker explained: “Part of the job of the Holy Spirit is to bring forth God’s justice in the world . . . If Craig Watkins had not gotten elected, all those innocent men who were sitting in prison all those years would probably have never gotten their DNA tested . . . [T]hey would never have gotten freedom.”
It is a shattering experience to read about innocents in jail. These people survived incarceration through sheer, raw faith, sometimes overtly religious, sometimes not. “Tested” gives us the story of Billy Smith, for instance, who found solace in the Serenity Prayer, writing down what he couldn’t change: a wrongful imprisonment, a life sentence, an estranged family. And what he could: himself. Then there is Eugene Henton, who found peace in the Koran while in jail, becoming fluent in Arabic. They are among the 311 nationwide who’ve been exonerated through DNA tests since 1989.
That’s enough time to silt up a small, vigorous genre of books about the wrongfully convicted. For context, let’s start with “Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How To Make It Right” (Doubleday, 2000). Authors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, founders of The Innocence Project, and Jim Dwyer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, scrutinize all the ways to become like Josef K, the protagonist of “The Trial,’’ Franz Kafka’s novel of justice off the rails. The most common? Mistaken eyewitness identifications. “The face of a suspect is pressed into the soft putty of memory,” they write. “Then it hardens into a shape.” Identification is perilously iffy, in other words, especially if it’s interracial. As such, the authors insist that the traditional suspect lineup row be reconfigured. Meaning one suspect is shown at a time, overseen by a cop neutral to the case.
The book’s chapter headings show what else mocks justice: “False Confessions,’’ “White Coat Fraud,’’ “Junk Science,’’ “Sleeping Lawyers,’’ “Race.’’ The tone throughout is one of passionate advocacy.
Same goes for Abbe Smith’s “Case of a Lifetime: A Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Story” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2008). A painful lack of feel-good triumph here: There’s no DNA involved in the murder case of Smith’s longtime client Patsy Kelly Jarrett, and she’s turned down for appeal repeatedly. The evidence is so thin, though (one shaky eyewitness), she’s finally given parole in her 50s, after serving 28 years. More painful, still: Smith believes Jarrett’s “innocence got in the way of her judgment.” If she’d been less adamant, she could have taken a plea and gotten out much earlier. This way, she lost her youth and so much else.
Newer, and more scholarly, coverage rises in “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong” (Harvard University, 2012). Author Brandon L. Garrett, who teaches law at the University of Virginia, pores over the court transcripts of 207 exonerees to pursue a single goal: “to find out what went wrong.” The cases were “not idiosyncratic,” Garrett discovers to his surprise. “The same problems occurred again and again.” False confessions are abundant. Suspects (especially juveniles) are threatened with violence, frightened relentlessly over hours, falsely told there’s evidence tying them to the crime, or reassured they can go home if they just sign a confession. How to stop such railroading? Garrett wants all interrogations completely recorded and videotaped — many detectives press pause at strategic places. He digs up lots of invalid forensics as well and proposes all such work get an outside audit.
“Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated” (McSweeney’s, 2005) is a rich oral history of 13 innocents, compiled by Lola Vollen and Dave Eggers. So much suffering: One man compares himself to Job; another says his life is “a broken puzzle.” A universal theme is how each, young when they went in, middle-aged when they get out, all missed a crucial maturing stage. “I’m Still Twenty-Four,” as the chapter title reads for David Pope, who was released at age 40, after serving 15 years.
“Bloodsworth” (Algonquin, 2005) gives us the too-perfectly-named Kirk Bloodsworth, who is sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a Maryland nine-year-old girl in 1984. In prison, he reads everything he can on criminal law, writes untold letters to anyone who might help, always adding AIM after his name, “An Innocent Man.” Author Tim Junkin writes how this former Marine stumbles onto Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Blooding,” which tells of a brand new scientific test involving DNA developed by a British scientist, Sir Alec Jeffreys (who ended up writing the preface to “Bloodsworth”). The first person on death row to be released on DNA evidence, Bloodsworth is now an activist in the anti-death-penalty movement.
The unbearable factor is high in all these books but, for me, it reached it’s peak in “Picking Cotton: One Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” (St. Martin’s, 2009). That’s because we hear not only from wrongfully convicted Ronald Cotton but also Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, the woman who mistakenly named him her rapist years before. (Erin Torneo also gets writer billing with the pair). I think Jalah Parker would see the Holy Spirit at work here too: With unimaginably hard-won grace, Cotton and Thompson-Cannino forge a tentative, then deep, friendship after a DNA test absolves Cotton 10 years into his sentence. They now travel the country, speaking about their case and advocating for judicial reform. The book opens with uncanny normalcy on a sunny fall day in 2006 with Cotton and his daughter hanging out with Thompson-Cannino at her daughter’s soccer game. Someone curiously asks how this white woman and black man know each other. The two look at one another and pause meaningfully. Then Cotton says, “We go way back.”
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.