Panelists Share Stories of Wrongful Conviction

The Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program hosted a panel discussion regarding wrongful convictions and the means of which victims of the legal system can be freed on Oct. 29. The discussion ranged from issues of racial disparity to flaws in the criminal justice system.

Panelists included Rahsaan D. Hall, director of racial justice at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts; Charlotte Whitmore, professor at Boston College Law; and Stephanie Hartung, professor of law and social justice at Northeastern University. The discussion was moderated by Sharon Beekman, also a professor at BC Law.

Whitmore and Beekman co-direct the BC Innocence Program, in which BC Law students research cases of prisoners who maintain their influence and represent them throughout the process.

At the beginning of the presentation, the audience received slips of paper in a variety of shapes.

Those with certain shapes or colors stood as representations of those affected by wrongful convictions, demonstrating how the statistics were disproportionate in terms of race.

Beekman opened with additional statistics on wrongful convictions: Since 1989, 2,507 people have been exonerated after serving times, and of the 367 exonerated cases, DNA identified the 162 guilty assailants who went on to commit 152 additional crimes including 35 murders.

“Wrongful convictions are a problem for everyone,” Beekman said. “What if that happened to you or someone you love? In Massachusetts, most of the people who are wrongly convicted are locked up in their teens and are locked up for at least a decade.”

Witmore began talking about her personal experience helping those who have been wrongly convicted and how their stories are often overlooked. She emphasized the importance of listening to the stories of those who have been betrayed by the system and how wrongful convictions are less rare than people believe.

Witmore told the story of her work with a man named Christopher Omar Martinez, who took his first steps of freedom ealier this year after serving almost 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Martinez was 19 years old and had not had any previous experience with the legal system before he was arrested, and after a seven hour interrogation, signed a confession in English even though his fluent language was Spanish.

“Based on that confession alone he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison,” Witmor said. “There were a number of issues that came out about that case, obviously one that stood out was his false confession, but one statistic that really stood out to me when I was doing this work was that 25 percent of DNA exonerations [come after] false confessions.”

Hartung then discussed her work with New England Innocence Project, an organization that focuses to correct wrongful convictions and lobby for legislative solutions to prevent wrongful convictions from happening in the future.

She also spoke about the flawed perception that racial injustice is something that New England and Massachusetts arebimmune from given their progressive voting habits, which Hall agreed with.

“[This is the idea] that because we were one of the first abolitonist states and we were one of the first state to have same-sex marriage, we don’t have these other issues,” Hall said. “But when you look at issues like wrongful convictions and when you look at the gross racial disparities in the system, it’s very evident that we have these problems.”

Hall focused on the racial disparities evident in the legal system and American society as a whole, and he added that fixing systemic racism will take more than legislation. He expressed personal support for the abolition of prisons and advocated replacing the current system based on punishment for crimes committed to one that focuses on rehabilitation.

“Let’s cast a vision of the world that we want to live in that does not require us to have safety through putting people in cages,” Hall said. “Especially when you think about the deplorable conditions that exist where people are living. The system is too big, the system is insensitive, unempathetic, and it is racist. Wrongful convictions are the fruit of all of those.”

Photo by Jess Rivilis / Heights Staff