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Sex, Race, and Wrongful Conviction

October 3, 2013 06:32:00 am
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By Matthew Johnson

In the late 1980s, a white woman was raped and beaten so severely that she could not identify her attackers.  As fear and outrage gripped the city, police investigators focused on Black teen suspects. 

Interrogation produced “confessions” which led to convictions and years of imprisonment.  

Subsequent investigation, however, revealed the defendants were innocent and the “confessions” were false. 

If you are thinking about the April 1989 brutal attack on Trisha Ellen Meili in New York’s Central Park, notoriously known as the “Central Park Jogger” case, in which five young defendants were falsely accused and imprisoned, think again.  

The facts in the above case correspond to four Black Chicago youths (Calvin Ollins, Larry Ollins, Omar Saunders, and Marcellius Bradford), who were wrongfully convicted in 1988. 

Sarah Burns’ Academy Award nominated documentary, The Central Park Five, helped give the ‘Central Park Jogger’ case national visibility. But while the film commendably provides the perspective of the youthful defendants and their families, it unfortunately presents the case as though it were the result of unique racial and criminal justice peculiarities of New York City in the late 1980s. 

The Central Park Jogger defendants, in fact, are among a long series of African-Americans wrongfully convicted of sexual assaults against whites.

Just to name some examples: In North Carolina, the case of Darryl Hunt (1984) case and the Ronald Cotton (1984) case; New Jersey cases were McKinley Cromedy (1992), David Shephard  (1983) and Nate Walker (1974).  Possibly the most egregious, among a host of Texas cases, was Timothy Cole  (1985) who died in prison before he was exonerated.    

In California it was Herman Atkins (1986) and Albert Johnson (1992).  In Atlanta, three white women misidentified Calvin Johnson, Jr. (1983) as the rapist, and in Maryland  four people misidentified Bernard Webster (1982) as a rapist. 

The list continues with countless reports from across the nation about individuals released from prison after serving lengthy sentences for crimes they did not commit. 

They are usually referred to as “the exonerated, “the wrongfully convicted,” or victims of a “miscarriage of justice.”  While the imprisonment of innocent people is not new, the application of DNA science to criminal investigation has focused increased attention on wrongful conviction. 

Disaggregating the wrongful conviction data base illustrates the major role played by  sex and racial dynamics.  

Brandon Garrett’s major contribution to the field, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong (2011) reports on the first 250 DNA exonerations in the U.S. 

Garret’s study shows that 155 (62 percent) of the 250 cases involved African-American defendants.   When Latino defendants are added, the combined percentage goes up to 70 percent. 

Garrett notes that these percentages are above and beyond the existing disproportion of Blacks and Latinos behind bars in the US.  Moreover, 89 percent of the cases in Garrett’s sample were sex offense cases: that is 68 percent were rape cases and another 21 percent were rape/murder cases. 

These are remarkable findings when we consider that only about 10 percent of the prison population has been convicted of sexual offenses. 

As Jon Gould and Richard Leo observed in a 2010 review, “[a] common pattern of error is when a white woman is raped by an African American or Hispanic man and unintentionally identifies an innocent person as the perpetrator.” 

Rape is a highly intra-ethnic crime, that is, the vast majority of white victims are assaulted by white perpetrators just as Black victims are typically assaulted by Black assailants.  However, white victim cases predominate among Black defendants wrongly convicted of rape. 

As part of on-going research at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, my colleagues (Shakina Griffith, Carlene Barnaby) and I examined a series of 35 Black defendants wrongly convicted of sexual assaults against white victims. 

We found many of the common case features identified in other samples of the wrongly convicted, such as witness mis-identification, coerced forced confessions, flawed “scientific” evidence, and official misconduct. 

There were also indications that Black defendants were particularly vulnerable when they faced all-white juries.  One of our preliminary conclusions was sexual assault prosecution itself was not a risk factor for wrongful conviction. 

Rather, the “stranger rape” cases, as opposed to the “acquaintance” or “date rape” cases, demonstrate the increased risk of wrongful conviction. 

Thus, stranger rape cases, especially cross-racial ones, warrant special scrutiny.   

These cases produce the most dramatic press and public pressure on police authorities for arrests and convictions.  This pressure will yield to reports of arrests and indictments whether those arrested are innocent or actually guilty. 

Matthew B. Johnson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Current and recent members of his wrongful convictions research group are Stephanie Cunningham, Victoria Aderin, Ana Paredes, Jason Lee, Carlene Bobb, Marita Salwierz, and Zomorah Kennedy.  Professor Johnson welcomes comments from readers

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Posted by Miss B
Wednesday, November 06, 2013 10:34

It must be taken into account also that there is a misguided assumption that “Men of Color” are always lurking about just waiting to rape someone. Especially a pink woman. It makes me furious but that is the mind-set of pink American. I sure hope not all think this way but so many think this way until it is scary. So when the “Man of Color” goes before a jury the thought of guilt is already there. Even though there is to be no prejudging the seed was planted years ago. We are constantly having debates trying to dispel this awful notion that “Men of Color” are the major rapist, murderers and thieves. That we all come from broken homes and do no know who or where our fathers are. It is maddening.

Posted by Ericka Walker
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 02:38

It is not uncommon for African Americans or other minorities to plead to lesser crimes instead of taking serious cases to trial. Everyone is not presumed innocent until they’re proven guilty, they may be presumed guilty just for being a minority. This happens all the time. In my research on jury selection and decision making topics, there is a high percentage on African Americans being convicted and being sentenced to death when the crime was committed against a white person than any other minority. I strongly believe and hope we can somehow put a stop to this by increasing our knowledge and spreading it so that people are aware that it could happen to anybody. Just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time could mean that your brother, cousin, or friend who is of African descent could face these allegations.

Posted by Tim Bustle
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 01:07

It is clear that there is a serious miscarriage of justice occurring in the sense that a disproportionate amount of African American and Latino population are being wrongfully convicted. It is not just the racial stereotyping and biases that may exist within the police force, but it is also the overall societal view of crime and the criminal justice system. If people view black people being locked up and chalk that up in their minds to the norm for their society, its just a hop, skip and a small jump to wrongfully accusing or conviction black or Latino teenagers for crimes they did not convict.

It is the mentality that exists toward crime that only serves to fuel this racially discriminatory system. The average citizen sees that crime is higher in cities, there are more underprivileged minorities, clearly it must be them right? This is just one type of logical fallacy that creates an atmosphere of inaccurate judgement and will continually cause these horrible atrocities of people spending 16, 20, 25 years in prison until by some almost miracle, they are released.

Society’s view, and the view of those who carry out “justice” must change, and the information that Doctor Johnson provides is the stepping stone to awareness that we so desperately need to spread.

Posted by Liudmila Shapoval
Saturday, October 26, 2013 04:33

The history of racism in the US is much older than the history of this country. It merges into every aspect of our life, and this problem is not any different. While the justice system itself is not perfect as any other system that relies more or less on human judgment, it gets even worse when the racist perceptions start taking tall in the system. If the best rule of thumb is to be objective, can we really be objective in those cases then?
In other words, whether the issue of wrongfully convictions is in the justice system itself, or there is the problem in human factor that runs the justice system? For example, when a white person is wrongfully sentenced to lifetime in prison for a murder of another white person, then the issues of stereotyping, profiling, or generalizing disappear, leaving us with a problem of broken justice system. However, in the case of Central Park Joggers, along with many other ones, the focus is on the racial perception of witnesses, those who work in the judicial system, starting from profiling all the way to juries and judges.
My whole point is that regardless of what kind of system we make, it will never work perfectly for everybody. The issue is not the system. It is us – human beings with our complex mentality. And until we get rid of hatred, racism, social classifications, and many other characteristics that we use to distinguish others from us, we will be facing many problems.

Posted by Keyla Cedano
Friday, October 25, 2013 12:57

Although I agree with professor Jonhson, I think the issue of wrongful convictions needs to be put into historical perspective too.

At the time of these verdicts, we had just barely BEGAN to deal with the issue of racial discrimination through the civil rights movement. The national climate was dangerously racist and the criminal justice system was prejudiced toward minorities. Wrongful conviction of African-American males is a sad trend that was the product of such a time.

Having said that, I feel is important to note that even today, we maintain- systematically- the notion that African-American males in particular are expendable and nonessential members of US society.

The turning of this particular tide is happening, albeit slowly. Keyword: slowly.

I think as a nation we need to make better efforts to correct the disenfranchisement of African-American males, so I applaud institutions with the heavy task of correcting the problem of wrongful convictions via DNA testing.

Still, raising awareness about the staggering numbers of wrongful convictions is key in beginning the process of resttitution.

Posted by Earl Smith
Friday, October 25, 2013 11:33

A search of the database SOCIOLOGY ABSTRACTS turns up little to nothing on the crime of rape. Why? The mainstream sociology journals are not interested in this challenging topic. A similar search using keywords Wrongful Conviction, receives similar results. Taken together rape & wrongful convictions frightens social and behavioral scholars especially when the concerns are more than technical glitches that lands one in prison for a crime they did not commit.
BRAVO to Dr. Johnson and his research team for finally addressing this issue of Blacks (especially men) locked up for rape and sexual assault of White women when they did not do the crime.
A fine piece of work that needs—as we say in sociology—to be replicated.
Sincerely,
Earl Smith, PhD
Distinguished Professor of Sociology

Posted by Carlene Bobb
Sunday, October 13, 2013 07:25

This article is just a mere fraction of the numerous wrongful conviction cases that have been exonerated over the years. It is extremely important that these cases be brought to our attention, because it could happen to you, or someone you know. The more we know, the more we can help and bring awareness to all the errors that lead to the imprisonment of innocent individuals. We definitely need more individuals like Dr. Johnson to come forward and share information, passion for justice, education, empowerment, and the desire to impart knowledge.

Posted by Stephanie Cunningham
Monday, October 07, 2013 06:19

In addition to these cases mentioned, there are also cases where defendants who were innocent plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. For example, Brian Banks, a former Atlanta Falcons NFL linebacker, plead guilty to rapping a woman when he was in high school. He plead guilty to one count of forcible rape to served only 5 years in prison compared to the 41 years he would have had to face in prison, if he had proceed with a trial. After he served 5 years in prison, he was released on parole and had to register as a sex offender. He was exonerated in 2012, when the woman he was accused of rapping admitted to lying about the rape during a taped recorded conversation between herself and Brian Banks.

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