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From the Editor

By Paul Wright

Probably the biggest threat to the credibility of the American police state is that of wrongful convictions. American history has plenty of examples of prisoners being freed from lengthy prison sentences after being wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. But all things being equal those were few and far between. In part, the sweep of the police dragnet was much smaller with prison and jail populations a fraction of their current size. Before the advent of DNA testing though, proving a wrongful conviction was a time-consuming process usually requiring far more resources than all but the wealthiest of criminal defendants could afford.

DNA testing has resulted in thousands of exonerations. The National Registry of Exonerations records 3,481 people exonerated of crimes they did not commit since 1989. Some might say that for a police state that convicts a million people a year of felonies, these are pretty good numbers. I would say that this is the tip of the iceberg and only a small fraction of the people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. One is the length of sentence. Defendants who challenge wrongful convictions tend to be the ones serving the longest sentences, those with relatively short sentences often cannot exhaust the lengthy and slow criminal justice appeals process or are released before they can complete it.

Wrongful convictions destroy the lives of those they impact and also, all too often, allow the actual criminals to both remain free and continue victimizing others. As noted in this issue of PLN, Robert Duboise, is a Florida prisoner who was wrongfully convicted of a rape murder he did not commit and spent 37 years in prison before being exonerated. Two men are now facing criminal charges for the crimes Robert was wrongfully convicted of. Robert retained the Chicago law firm of Loevy Loevy and the Florida based Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), of which I am the founder and director, to obtain compensation for his imprisonment. Last month the city of Tampa, Florida, agreed to pay Robert $14 million which is the largest payout to a wrongfully convicted prisoner in Florida history.

Ironically, Florida leads the nation in the number of exonerated prisoners but it also lags far behind the rest of the country when it comes to compensating them for those wrongful convictions. Hopefully HRDC can begin to change that.

On February 28, 2024, I attended the inauguration of Yusef Salaam celebrating his historic election to the city council of New York City. It was a historic moment because Yusef first achieved public notice as a teenager, then 15, in 1989 when he was wrongfully convicted with 4 other children of beating and raping a woman jogger in New York City and becoming known as the Central Park Five. Now presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump took out full page newspaper ads at the time calling for the death penalty against Salaam and his codefendants. Innocence notwithstanding of course.

Salaam and his co defendants duly confessed to the crimes they did not commit as a result of beatings and threats by the police and being deprived of food, water and sleep for more than a day. The state court of appeals and highest court all upheld the children’s convictions. Salaam was released from prison in 1997.

In 2002, Matias Reyes, a prisoner already convicted of a similar rape murder confessed to the Central Park assault. DNA testing confirmed Reyes was the assailant and Salaam and his child co defendants were factually innocent of the assault and rape they had been convicted of. Their convictions were all overturned in 2002 and in subsequent civil rights suits they received $41 million in damages.

Salaam moved to Georgia after his release from prison and was recruited to return to New York and run for office. As we have reported in PLN, we are seeing a trend of former prisoners being elected to office. For Salaam it was a truly historic moment to be elected to the government of the very city that 35 years ago had convicted him of a crime he had not committed him and caged him for it.

The reception was well attended by local and state politicians and members of the community as well as his extensive family and Salaam’s mother Sharonne, who was his most ardent and tireless defender during his long ordeal. The invocation was led by FBI informant, the Reverend Al Sharpton. The impact one individual can have in a city notorious for its corrupt politicians and well entrenched police force and a horrific jail (Rikers Island) that have resisted reform and change for well over a century, remains to be seen. But it is a start.

I started the month of February, 2024, with Robert Duboise’s settlement for $14 million for his wrongful conviction and I ended the month in Harlem celebrating Yusef Salaam’s election to public office almost 22 years after his wrongful conviction was reversed. While that may seem like a good month, we can only wonder how many more wrongfully convicted men and women are languishing behind bars for crimes they did not commit? When people joke that it is “good enough for government work” or don’t believe the government capable of doing a very good job at much of anything, they seem to forget it is the government arresting, prosecuting and caging people for crimes.

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