In an era of email, the handwritten letters arrive the old-fashioned wayby US Postal Service. The penmanship is frequently awful, and my street address is sometimes rendered incorrectly. But year after year, mail carrier John Williams (and his substitutes) deliver the letters and packages to the oversized green mailbox with a red flag, the assemblage perched four feet off the ground on a wooden post.
The letters and packages come from convicted felons, or their loved ones, or their lawyers. They are contacting me because it seems I am one of the few journalists who pay attention to their claims of innocence.
"My mail carrier's bag overflowed, and for three years, I responded to every plea for help that arrived with information about allegedly wayward prosecutors."
Because most of the letters display return addresses from prisons, my wife worries our mail carriers wonder about my uprightness. So she explained to Williams that I am an investigative reporter examining the frequency of wrongful convictions in the supposedly first-rate US criminal justice system. The courtly Williams replied that he never notices return addresses, but my wife suspects otherwise.
"I'm going to make this short as possible because it seems as if my letters get returned or not answered. However, I know you haven't ever seen a case that's as blatantly corrupt as mine
When it comes to bad prosecutors, mine will top the charts. I can prove I'm innocent per the record
My case is a joke. I got a life sentence for this joke
I now can't afford a lawyer and don't really want one, I believe their [sic] all crooked, God is my advocate now
From an inmate in a Texas prison
Like some other investigative reporters, I have been receiving pleas for help from allegedly innocent inmates since the start of my journalism career. Like too many of those other journalists, I used to skim the letters, then discard the vast percentage of them without reply. I accepted the conventional wisdomthat most prisoners say they are innocent even though they are guilty. It was not until 1999, nearly 30 years into my investigative career, that I modified my discard-without-reply policy.
Macro and micro reasons caused me to change my misguided ways.
The macro derived from a phenomenon even a fool could eventually see: Defense lawyers, private investigators, and a few journalists were demonstrating over and over that wrongful convictions are more common than acknowledged by police, prosecutors, and judges. DNA evidence had become the undeniable change agent. Most crimes do not yield testable, definitive DNA evidence. But among those crimes that do yield such evidence, the exoneration rate in many local and federal prosecutorial jurisdictions had become unacceptably high. The New York City-based Innocence Project puts the number of DNA-related exonerations at 254 and counting.
One innocent prisoner in any jurisdiction is one too many; a dozen or more could reasonably be considered an epidemic. One other troubling implication, needless to say, is that when the wrong defendant is convicted, the actual murderer, rapist, or thief is frequently at liberty to continue committing those crimes.
Non-DNA cases are prone to wrongful convictions, too. The number of exonerations in those cases is building as defense lawyers, private investigators, and journalists understand more fully what can go wrong: mistaken eyewitness identifications; lying jailhouse snitches; expert witnesses practicing junk science or perjuring themselves about what could have been valid scientific testing; false confessions based on coercion or mental illness; or a combination of any of these.
Jurisdictions with recurring exonerations include Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, St. Louis (city and county), and multiple West Virginia counties.
"I'm writing this letter asking for your help in exposing those (police and prosecutor) who were responsible for the fallacy that led to my arrest, indictment and conviction. I was told that you have conducted research on cases where the prosecutor had broken the law, and that you are also affiliated with as well as organizations that could bring public awareness to cases that warranted it. Therefore, I'm asking you to please help me
I was wrongfully convicted on drug conspiracy charges of which I'm completely innocent. But I'm finding it extremely difficult to convince anyone to give me the benefit of the doubt in presenting indisputable evidence that shows the prosecutor and police fraudulently manufactured the case against me
From an inmate in a West Virginia penitentiary
On the micro level, my painstaking investigation of a specific case altered my dismissive treatment of letters from inmates. The case centered on Ellen Reasonover, a single mother of an infant daughter, a woman with no record of violence. Police in St. Louis County, Missouri, theorized that Reasonover, an African-American (yes, race played a factor in the case), had joined with two African-American males to murder a white service-station attendant. Police and prosecutors never charged either man with murder. They charged Reasonover only after two jailhouse snitches with multiple reasons to lie said the suspect had spontaneously confessed in a holding cell. An all-white jury convicted Reasonover. She probably would have been executed by the state of Missouri, except for one juror holding out against the death penalty.
Reasonover, not well-educated and without financial resources, labored mightily from prison to find somebody who would help her mount an appeal. After years of futile letter writing, she gained the attention of James McCloskey, a former international businessman turned seminarian who decided, at about age 40, to devote his life to investigating claims of actual innocence. After establishing the not-for-profit Centurion Ministries in Princeton, New Jersey, McCloskey found himself inundated with requests for help. Reasonover's plea was one of the rare requests that McCloskey could afford to investigate.
Because of McCloskey and those he enlisted on Reasonover's behalf, she won freedom after 16 years of imprisonment for a murder she did not commit. (To the shame of St. Louis County law enforcement agencies, the actual murderer never has been charged.)
As I investigated Reasonover's conviction to determine what had gone wrong and why, I found myself enlightened and perplexed. Why had police jumped to the seemingly ridiculous conclusion that Reasonover murdered the service-station attendant? Why had the prosecutor filed a murder charge, knowing he lacked credible evidence and that he had cut undisclosed deals with the jailhouse snitches? Why had 12 jurors agreed unanimously about Reasonover's guilt? What had happened to the all-important principle of "reasonable doubt"? Why did so many appellate judges within the Missouri court system failed to overturn the conviction? What caused a federal judgea former prosecutorto finally set the travesty right?
As I investigated the case, I became personally acquainted with Reasonover. Later, I became much better acquainted with Missouri exonerees Joshua Kezer (wrongfully convicted of murder in a rural southeastern Missouri county) and Darryl Burton (wrongfully convicted of murder in St. Louis city). I am not an unerring judge of character. Nobody is. But based on all my private interactions with Kezer and Burton, I am proud to know them. For what it is worth, despite their lack of academic degrees and their decades in prison, Kezer and Burton are intelligent and eloquent by any standard.
I published a feature about the Reasonover case in the August 2000 issue of The American Lawyer magazine. Even before that, I had decided to seek funding for a massive project that would demonstrate that wrongful convictions are more common than previously acknowledged. I decided to focus on the conduct of local prosecutors, who more than any other individuals within the criminal-justice system are responsible for the appropriate outcome.
As I started the massive project with generous support from the Center for Public Integrity, I made the fateful decision that would increase the amount of mail I received from prisons far past the border of sanity. I knew that official records would never yield the depth and breadth of information I sought for each of the 2,341 local prosecutor jurisdictions. So I decided to place advertisements in prison newsletters and other venues that reached inmates directly.
The advertisement said, in part:
Steve Weinberg, a veteran investigative journalist, is researching specific cases of prosecutorial misconduct that lead to wrongful convictions. He would like to hear from anybodyprisoners, their families and friends, lawyers, expert and lay witnesses, jurors, medical examiners, police officers, judgeswith evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.
Within the advertisement, I listed my snail-mail address, email address, and telephone numbers.
Williams's mailbag started overflowing as he carried the letters to my home. For about three years, I responded to every plea for help that arrived with information about allegedly wayward prosecutors. Many days, I achieved nothing except writing, stamping, and mailing replies.
The Center for Public Integrity study appeared during summer 2003. But the flow of letters did not diminish. Even today, more than 10 years after I placed the advertisement in prison newsletters, it is circulating in cyberspace.
I no longer reply to every letter that arrives with a prison return address. I want to, and I am devoting a significant portion of my life to seeking exonerations for those who are actually innocent. And yet, every time I allow a letter to go unanswered, I feel guilty.
I can employ logic to assuage the guilt somewhat: I cannot afford all the postage, and I especially cannot afford the time. My elderly, ill parents moved to the city of my residence last year, and caring for them cuts into my time and can cause bouts of depression. I further assuage my guilt by throwing myself into the day-to-day operations of the Midwestern Innocence Project, which I helped organize. Although we struggle for money to keep operating, right now the MIP employs two lawyers and two paralegals, and receives research assistance from college studentsmost in law schools and journalism schools, earning credit hoursplus local professionals donating time. In its brief existence, the MIP has played a role in a few exonerations and seems to be on the verge of engineering two or more fresh ones.
Even though I have abandoned journalism for a brand of advocacy when wearing my Midwestern Innocence Project hat (I literally wear such a hat on my head), what I have accomplished is inadequate. So the unease I harbor about the unanswered mail has not disappeared.
When I'm feeling uncharitable, I wonder why inmates bother to contact me so many years later; for all they know, my snail-mail address is invalid, or I dropped dead.
But, in truth, I know exactly why the letters arrive a decade later. The inmates are desperate. And too many of them actually are innocent.