It’s something out of our worst nightmares — being charged with a crime we didn’t commit. We hope and assume that the legal system will work for us, will protect us. But what if it doesn’t? And even if it eventually does, how long will the process take?
In the case of these individuals, they each had to serve at least 30 years in prison before they’d see justice:
Cornelius Dupree (30 years)
In 1979, a 26-year-old Dallas woman and her male friend were carjacked and robbed, and then the woman was later raped by the same two perpetrators. Cornelius Dupree and a friend, Anthony Massingill, were arrested a week later at the scene of the crime, and the female victim picked the photographs of Dupree and Massingill from among the photo array. Despite the fact that her male friend never identified Dupree as one of the perpetrators, and that she confused photos of Dupree and Massingill multiple times, the two men were arrested and eventually convicted of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon.
While in prison, Dupree had multiple chances for parole, but in order to get it, he would have had to admit that he was a sex offender, which he refused to do. “Whatever your truth is, you have to stick with it,” he said after he was released in 2010. The day after his release, he married his fiancée, whom he’d met nearly 20 years before while he was in prison. Texas compensation laws provide $80,000 for each year he served, plus an annuity for the remainder of his life. [InnocenceProject.org] [NBCNews.com]
Lawrence McKinney (31 years)
In 1977, two men broke into a Memphis woman’s apartment and raped her. She would later identify Lawrence McKinney as one of the men, and another man who lived nearby as the other assailant. McKinney and his codefendant were both convicted of the crime in 1978.
Eventually, McKinney was able to get the Innocence Project involved in his case. For the past 25 years, the Innocence Project has been working to help exonerate individuals in the prison system who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. In McKinney’s case, further testing of biological evidence from the victim’s bed revealed that there were stains from three individuals — the victim, McKinney’s codefendant, and a third unknown individual. None of the stains matched McKinney’s DNA profile.
In 2009, McKinney’s conviction was vacated, and he was released. He was given $75 from the State of Tennessee to assist in post-release expenses, and is currently fighting for the up to $1 million in compensation he could be due if officially exonerated. “I don’t have no life, all my life was taken away,” he told reporters. [InnocenceProject.org] [New York Daily News]
Keith Harward (33 years)
Keith Harward was a sailor with the United States Navy, stationed at a Virginia shipyard, when he was accused of rape and murder. Jesse Perron, a man who lived nearby, had been killed, and his wife had been raped as he lay dying. A security guard at the shipyard would later identify Harward as wearing a bloody uniform. That eyewitness account, together with bite marks on the female victim’s leg that the prosecution said matched Harward’s teeth, were the basis of his conviction. The female victim never identified him as her assailant.
With more sophisticated DNA testing, the Innocence Project advocated for further examination of the evidence in the original case, and Harward’s profile was not identified from any DNA left at the crime scene. The DNA was actually found to match Jerry L. Crotty, another naval man who’d been on the USS Carl Vinson with Harward, and who had previously died in prison while serving a sentence for abduction. Harward was released in 2016 and now lives in North Carolina, where he enjoys fishing and spending time with family. Although he intends to seek compensation under Virginia’s laws, there are no reports of any official amount yet. [The Guardian] [NBCNews] [WAVY.com]
Lewis Fogle (34 years)
In 1976, 15-year-old Deann Katherine Long was raped and killed. Although there was no physical evidence tying Lewis Fogle to the scene, jailhouse informants claimed that Fogle had bragged about committing the crime five years after it had happened. In 1982, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Fogle always maintained his innocence, and, with the help of the Innocence Project, he was able to get physical evidence from Long’s autopsy retested. It was not found to match Fogle’s DNA profile, and he was released in 2015. For the months following his release, the State of Pennsylvania considered retrying him for second-degree murder, but eventually decided not to pursue the case for lack of evidence.
Under Pennsylvania’s laws, Fogle currently has no recourse for compensation for those lost years spent in prison. He was quoted as saying that the first step to the rest of his life would be to order a steak. “I haven’t had beef for a long, long time,” he said. [NBCNews] [NBCNews (2)] [New York Times]
James Bain (35 years)
For James Bain, his sideburns played a large part in his wrongful conviction. When a nine-year-old boy was taken from his home in Lake Wales, Florida, in 1974 and raped, he later identified his assailant as someone with sideburns named “Jim” or “Jimmy.” In a photo lineup, the victim later identified Bain, although only Bain and one other individual had sideburns in their photos.
Bain did not have the benefit of DNA testing at his trial, so although there was semen evidence, it could not be definitely matched with Bain. One argument arose over whether he matched the blood group of the semen, with the prosecution arguing that although he was AB and the semen was B, Bain could not be excluded. They also attacked Bain’s alibi, which was that he had been at home watching TV, a story supported by his sister. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Bain wrote multiple handwritten motions for his DNA evidence to be retested, and eventually, with the help of the Innocence Project, he was able to get the State of Florida to exclude him as the source of the DNA, declare him innocent, and release him from prison. He would later receive $1.7 million for his wrongful conviction, representing $50,000 for each year he spent behind bars. [InnocenceProject.org]
Joseph Sledge (36 years)
A series of bad decisions and tragic oversights led to the wrongful conviction of Joseph Sledge in 1978. Two years earlier, Sledge was serving time for larceny in a minimum-security prison camp when he got into an altercation with a fellow inmate and jumped the fence, fleeing the camp. Coincidentally, the night of his escape, mother and daughter Josephine and Ailene Davis were murdered only five miles away. Sledge was picked up and charged with the crime.
A crucial part of the prosecution’s case against Sledge was the testimony of two fellow inmates, who claimed that Sledge had confessed to killing the Davis women while looking to hide after his escape. Later, one inmate would recant his testimony, saying that he was promised leniency with a drug charge in exchange for testifying. The other inmate was already deceased.
During the decades he was in prison, Sledge sent letters to any official he could — judges, police, prosecutors — asking for retesting of physical evidence. But it wasn’t until 2012, when a clerk happened to climb a ladder while cleaning the evidence vault, that the envelope with the hairs found on the victims’ bodies was found. It had been nearly ten years since the clerks had first been ordered to find that evidence.
It would be 2015 before Sledge would finally get released from prison. Once out, he focused on joy rather than on bitterness. The State of North Carolina owes him $750,000 for compensation, but he was more preoccupied with thoughts of football and food and family. “I’m full up on freedom,” he told The News & Observer. [The News & Observer] [WRAL.com]
Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman (39 years)
Ricky Jackson, Wiley Bridgeman, and Wiley’s younger brother, Ronnie, remembered hearing about the 1975 murder before they were arrested for it. A salesman, Harold Franks, had been shot in front of a nearby corner store.
At the time of the murder, Eddie Vernon, a 12-year-old boy, heard the gunshots from his seat on the school bus. Under pressure from police, he would later claim that he’d seen the whole event, and named Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers as the ones behind the crime. The three were eventually convicted and sentenced to death, although those sentences were commuted to life when Ohio’s capital punishment law was overturned in 1978.
The younger Bridgeman brother, Ronnie, who later changed his name to Kwame Ajamu, was the first to be released on parole in 2003. He fought for the release of his brother and Jackson, but it wasn’t until Vernon recanted his testimony ten years later that the case got any traction. In 2013, Vernon admitted that he hadn’t seen the crime, and said that detectives had threatened to put his parents in jail and otherwise coerced him to make statements against Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers.
In 2014, Jackson and Bridgeman were finally released. They have over $2 million in compensation coming to them from the State of Ohio for their wrongful imprisonment, but are also suing detectives and the City of Cleveland for the gross misconduct in their case. They allege that police fabricated testimony, falsified reports, and ignored other suspects, including one who had been implicated by informants and his own mother, and who was later convicted of armed robbery in another case.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Jackson has served more time in prison than anyone who has been released on a wrongful conviction in United States history. And yet despite everything that happened, the three men harbor no ill feelings toward Vernon. “We were kids,” Ajamu said. [Cleveland.com] [TheGuardian.com] [National Registry of Exonerations] [NPR.org]
Main photo: Handcuffed prisoner in jail [ThinkStock]