Sunday, April 11, 2010

Christy Sheppard,Debra Sue Carter's Sister Is Working To Free The Wrongly Convicted and Prevent Wrongful Convictions

Women Gain When Men Wrongly Accused of Rape Are Freed

Run Date: 07/27/06
By Maddy deLone
WeNews commentator
The Innocence Project often opens the prison gates for men falsely accused of sex assault. Its staff is often asked whether its work serves the interests of rape survivors and women generally. Commentator Maddy deLone says the answers are yes and yes.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Earlier this month, Alan Newton walked out of a Bronx courtroom a free man. Twenty-two years after he was convicted for a brutal rape that he didn't commit, he was finally exonerated. For the first time since 1984, he decided what he would wear and what he would do.
One of the first things he did was approach several dozen reporters to talk about the rape survivor who mistakenly identified him as the perpetrator, leading to his conviction. Before addressing his own wrongful conviction and his new freedom, he said his thoughts were with the rape survivor. His voice chocked with emotion, he expressed compassion and sympathy for her.

To date, 182 people nationwide have been exonerated with DNA testing. The Innocence Project represented many of them, just as we represented Alan Newton. Because we only take cases where DNA can yield conclusive proof of innocence, many of our clients are men who were wrongly convicted of sexual assault. Ninety percent of the 182 exonerations involved sexual assault (sometimes in combination with murder and other crimes). While the criminal justice system began using DNA testing two decades ago to help identify the guilty and exonerate the innocent, it has become more prevalent and more sophisticated in recent years.

Since our clients are primarily men convicted of heinous crimes against women, some people wonder whether our work serves the interests of rape survivors and women generally. I strongly believe that it does in very specific, individual ways, and also more broadly and profoundly.

When No Justice Is Served
When the wrong man is convicted of assaulting a woman, nobody sees justice. The true perpetrator can remain at large, unpunished for a horrible crime and able to rape again. In one-third of the 182 DNA exonerations, we haven't just proved someone's innocence; the DNA has been used to help identify the true perpetrator.

As Alan Newton recognized earlier this month, wrongful convictions--once they're finally overturned--reopen crime victims' wounds and prevent them from moving forward, often decades after a crime. Once DNA proves that the wrong man was convicted, rape survivors are often brought right back to the night of the crime. Many are left questioning how they identified the wrong man, and wondering whether they will have to endure another trial, years later. The pain survivors experience at such times could be avoided if wrongful convictions were prevented in the first place.

Beyond the substantial consequences for the wrongly accused and individual rape survivors, wrongful convictions concern many of us because people of color and poor people are disproportionately targeted by our criminal justice system. That's troubling enough, but when it's done in the name of protecting the public and punishing violence against women, we cannot stand by.

More Men of Color Convicted
Among the 182 exoneration cases, where the race of wrongly convicted people is known, nearly 75 percent are men of color. No two cases are alike, but in many of them, police focused on an African American man immediately and ignored information that might have led to other suspects. In some of them, police coerced confessions, prosecutors concealed evidence and defense attorneys for poor defendants failed to challenge faulty evidence and law enforcement tactics.

The leading cause of wrongful convictions--playing a factor in about 75 percent of the exoneration cases--is eyewitness misidentification. The day after Alan Newton was exonerated in the Bronx, a member of a "men's advocacy" group called our office. He wasn't calling to help Newton find a job or offering other support to him, as many others have. He wanted to know why the Innocence Project doesn't pursue perjury charges against rape survivors who identify the wrong man.

Aside from the patently offensive notion of putting rape survivors on trial, the truth is that eyewitness misidentification is often the result of flawed law enforcement techniques that lead crime victims to identify a suspect who police already presume is guilty. The Innocence Project pursues policy reforms to improve identification techniques nationwide so crime victims aren't led to misidentify innocent people. These include specific changes to police lineup procedures, which have already been adopted by a number of cities, states and counties.

Women Who Help Our Work
A number of rape survivors and crime victims work with the Innocence Project to remedy the deeply embedded problems in our criminal justice system that cause wrongful convictions in the first place. They are all incredibly strong, powerful and amazing women. A particularly inspiring partner in our work is Christy Sheppard of Oklahoma.

Her cousin, Debra Sue Carter, was brutally raped and murdered in 1982. Six years later, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were convicted; Fritz was sentenced to life in prison, while Williamson received the death penalty and came within five days of being executed. In 1999, both men were exonerated with DNA testing, which indicated that the state's main witness against them was actually the perpetrator.

In the years since, Christy Sheppard has pressed for state legislation to create an Innocence Commission that would study wrongful convictions in the state and identify steps to avoid future wrongful convictions. She says this advocacy is her way of fighting for real justice for her cousin, and for countless other women.

In very different ways, Christy Sheppard and Alan Newton remind us why working to free the wrongly convicted and prevent wrongful convictions is critical for everyone involved. They show us not just what's at stake, but that all of us can--and must--do our part to correct injustice.

Let me preface this by saying that I have an enormous amount of respect for the efforts of The Innocence Project. Those involved devote their time to freeing individuals who have been wrongly convicted and it is through their efforts that many men who have been falsely accused of rape and other crimes have been freed.

For this, I applaud them.

That said....the premise of this article is to convince people that it is beneficial to women if innocent men who are wrongly convicted of rape are freed from jail.


What bearing should it have upon the righting of a heinous wrong if it serves the interests of women? It is done because it is right; it is done because anything less should be unthinkable.

Unquestionably, we all benefit and the greater good is served when right and justice prevail but even if this were not the case; even if it could be indisputably proven that women were negatively effected by innocent men being released from jail....WHO CARES?

It's a telling commentary that this issue is even addressed....that even for one minute, when discussing the wrongful imprisonment of innocent men, there should be a need to expound upon it's mutual benefits to women.

Is this how we now define justice? Is right now determined by whether or not something benefits women? Do we need to convince the masses that something will ultimately serve the best interest of women in order for it to be deemed worthy of action?

An innocent man should not have to sit one day behind bars. An innocent man should not have to have his life destroyed for something he never did. An innocent man should be set free from jail because he is innocent. Whether or not such an action is beneficial to women is immaterial. It is an offense to justice, truth and right that this question was ever asked. Above all, it is an offense to the innocent men whose lives have been wasted behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.

From A Great Blog - Equal but Different: It's Only Right When It Benefits Women

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