5 Wrongly Convicted People the Legal System Kept on Screwing
As procedural drama TV shows have taught us, every conviction in the U.S. justice system is the product of meticulous DNA testing and forced sexual tension among the detectives. But what happens when the prosecution screws up and the wrong man ends up in jail? Usually they apologize, set the man free, and try to help everyone move on with their lives, like the mature, responsible grown-ups they are.
Haha, just kidding -- it's actually physically impossible for people in authority positions to admit they're wrong, which is why we get situations like ...
Man Is Freed from Death Row, Billed for the Child Support Payments He Missed While There
Clarence Brandley was one of two janitors arrested in 1980 as suspects in the murder of a high school student. According to court documents, during their preliminary interrogations, one of the cops pointed to Brandley (who is black) and said, "One of you is going to hang for this. Since you're the n*****r, you're elected." And before you ask: Yes, this was Texas!
Everything's bigger in Texas! Except for the nooses; those are small and tight.
We're not sure if the cop's statement was meant to be a threat or just a casual prediction, but in either case (spoilers!) Brandley didn't really get a fair trial: He went before an all-white jury; evidence that would have exonerated him was "lost," "stolen," or "mislaid" (including the results of the autopsy); polygraph tests were fabricated; witnesses were told they would be charged with perjury if they didn't convict him; and the entire trial was conducted with KKK cheerleaders singing "Camptown Races" on the sidelines. OK, we made that last one up, but this part's true: When one juror remained unconvinced of Brandley's guilt, his name was leaked to the press and he began receiving hassling phone calls that called him a "n*****r-lover." Brandley was convicted and given the death penalty, and as you can imagine, it turns out he was innocent as balls the entire time.
In 1987, a different, altogether whiter janitor named James Dexter Robinson admitted to the crime during a polygraph test, and it was later revealed that multiple witnesses had implicated him in the crime during the initial investigation but the police had ignored it, because they already had a black guy in custody. Luckily, when Brandley finally got himself an appeal, it was a slam dunk: The presiding judge said that "no case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice." Brandley's life was spared and he was released. Happy ending, right?
He missed most of the '80s. Some would call him lucky.
Not quite: When he got out, Brandley was surprised to discover that he was to make good on the child support payments he had missed. You know, the ones that he was unable to pay due to being in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Between 1993 and 2007, he was forced to pay back $25,640 -- even though the "children" in need of "support" were in their 20s and 30s by then. Meanwhile, when he sued the state to get some reimbursement for the nine years of his life they stole, he was told to go screw himself. Like we said -- the state isn't so big on admitting mistakes.
But he still made off better than ...
The Real Life Fugitive (Who Went Right Back to Prison)
The Fugitive is a classic story of redemption: Harrison Ford (portrayed by renowned surgeon Dr. Richard Kimble) is wrongfully convicted of a violent crime and must escape from prison to track down the real killer and clear his name. You'd think something like that could never happen in real life -- and you'd be right, but not for the reasons you think.
In real life, one-armed men aren't villains. They're awesome.
When Labanna Rohrbach and Julius Krause were arrested for the 1930 murder of a grocer, the 18-year-old Krause knew he was innocent -- and soon after that, so did everyone else, since Rohrbach had delivered a signed deathbed confession exonerating the man who had been convicted as his accomplice. When the authorities decided to quickly and incisively do fuck-all with this information, Krause was left with one option: escape from prison to hunt down the man responsible. So, 10 years after his conviction, that's exactly what he did.
While the authorities presumably conducted a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse in the area, Krause decided to make it easy on them by turning himself in 45 days later -- only he was accompanied by Curtiss Kumerle, the man guilty of the crime Krause was serving a sentence for. Krause had actually managed to track the guy down and convince him to confess, with Kumerle openly confirming that Krause was completely innocent. So, you'd assume that Julius Krause's ridiculous ordeal was over, right?
Except for the stressful "Congrats, Julius" parade.
Not quite: The state was still convinced that Krause was guilty for some reason, and even after the governor commuted his sentence from life to 20 years and recommended parole, the authorities kept him locked up for the entire sentence.
See, here's where movie law diverges from actual law: In a movie, if you get locked up for a crime you didn't commit and then escape prison and prove your innocence, they don't hold your escape against you (since you shouldn't have been in there in the first place). But in the real world, escaping from prison is a crime itself. Likewise, real cops don't always applaud those private citizens who go out and do their jobs for them.
Captain Krause wasn't the hero Ohio needed.
Still, you'd think they'd have cut him some slack. Instead, Krause ended up serving more time for the murder he didn't commit than the guy who actually committed it: Kumerle (who was guilty) got out of jail one month before Krause (who was innocent). They probably had a good laugh about it later.
The Man Spending His Life as a Convicted Felon Because of a Technicality
Kerry Max Cook's conviction for the 1977 murder of a young woman was a "guilty" verdict that got overturned when key witnesses recanted their testimony. A second trial resulted in a hung jury, and then a third ended with a conviction that was overturned when it was discovered that every detail of the prosecution's case was bullshit.
A witness who claimed that he and Cook had had crazy sex while watching a video of a cat being mutilated (... what?) totally abandoned his story, the prosecution had hidden evidence that Cook and the victim were friends (which explained why his fingerprints were in the house), and it turned out the testimony of their "star witness" was suspect as well: He was a jailhouse informant who admitted he had implicated Cook in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Half of you stopped reading and are hunting down that cat film.
But wait, there's more!
They also discovered that the lead investigator had kept the murder weapon in his home for some reason, that tons of evidence had been illegally destroyed, and, oh, one other thing: The prosecution hid the fact that someone else had been making death threats toward the victim prior to the murder. We're not lawyers, but death threats seem kind of important in a, ya know, murder case.
The point being, Cook is no more likely to be guilty than anyone else who knew the woman (and probably less likely than people who had threatened to kill her), and in 1999 he was finally given the opportunity to submit his blood sample to compare the DNA to semen found at the scene. But then, the night before his fourth trial, the government offered him a deal: He could go free ... if he pleaded no contest. In other words, "We'll let you go if you just tell everyone you did it."
The prosecutor ended all his dates with that same line.
So, if faced with that choice -- continuing to fight while imprisoned, or getting your freedom in exchange for declaring your guilt -- what would you do? Well, Cook did the latter. He was 42 years old by that point and had spent half his life in prison. He had been repeatedly assaulted, his father and brother had died, and he was starting to go crazy from watching trial after trial go by without reaching any conclusion.
And in a way, everyone wins here: The prosecution gets to go on with a perfect record, the state doesn't have to admit it was wrong, and Cook gets to have a life of freedom -- if by "freedom" you mean "being treated like a second-class citizen for your entire life because your criminal record says you're a convicted murderer/rapist." As opposed to if, say, the prosecution had just dropped the charges.
By the way: After he took the deal and eliminated the need for another trial, the test results on the DNA came back. It wasn't Cook's.
Absurdly Innocent Man Spends 18 Years in Prison, Becomes World's Coolest Dude
Texas police officers thought they had an open-and-shut murder case in 1992: After six people were murdered, a man named Robert Earl Carter confessed (the cops probably suspected him based on name alone). But then Carter and his wife implicated Anthony Graves as an accomplice. After a quick trial, both Carter and Graves were put on death row, and (pretty much) everyone went home to celebrate.
The other death row inmates celebrated a new friend's arrival.
Only for the next 18 years, Graves swore that he was innocent, and with the help of a non-practicing attorney/journalism professor, he finally got the authorities to take another look at the case. The prosecutors discovered that it was, in their words, "a criminal justice system's nightmare." It turns out there was no reason at all to believe Graves was guilty: The prosecutor, Charles Sebeta, had illegally hidden evidence from the court and promised Carter (the guy who actually confessed) that he wouldn't pursue charges against Carter's wife if he promised to name Graves as an accomplice.
That's probably why Carter later took back what he said about Graves, even insisting moments before his execution in 2000 that "Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it ... I lied on him in court." The prosecutors who investigated the case in 2010 (and exonerated Graves) said that "This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn't make the case anymore. He is an innocent man." Graves was set free, apologized to, and awarded $1.4 million in restitution. Since then, Graves has used his money to start a nonprofit for the children of incarcerated parents and create a law school scholarship in the name of the woman who helped him find freedom. So ... happy ending, right?
Yes. Yes, a happy ending. He's smiling now!
Almost. The prosecutor, Charles Sebeta, continues to rant on his website about how guilty Graves is, and even took out a newspaper ad in 2009 calling Graves "cold-blooded" (although he has kind of made himself a laughingstock in the process). Seriously, dude -- when you're trying to imprison a guy that even the state of Texas has declared pretty all right, it might be time to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
A Man Spends 34 Years in Prison for Stealing Candy
In 1925, 16-year-old Stephen Dennison stole $5 worth of chocolate bars and marshmallows from a roadside stand in Salem, New York. Stealing that much candy seems like the kind of thing that would result in a slap on the wrist and Big Bird teaching you a lesson about morality, but in 1925, it came with an automatic 10-year sentence -- partly because $5 was a lot more money back then, and partly because 1925 was awful.
All pleasure was banned by the government and owned by the gangsters.
Ten years is rough, true, but it won't totally ruin your life: You'll get out when you're 26, and probably even be able to have a normal existence after that. Except a clerical error labeled Dennison as a "low-grade moron," and he was transferred to an institute for "defective delinquents," where he was treated exactly the way you'd expect people to treat "defective low-grade morons." It was such a nightmare that he actually started to lose his grip a bit, and at the end of his 10-year sentence was given a "certificate of lunacy" and sent to a hospital for the criminally insane ... where they basically forgot about him.
Reminder: This all stemmed from some stolen candy.
His "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs" defense had backfired spectacularly.
It wasn't until 1960 -- after he had been imprisoned for 34 goddamned years -- that his brother George noticed that the guy had missed an awful lot of Thanksgivings and decided to hire some lawyers. Those lawyers quickly realized what no one else in the entire state had: Dennison should have had another trial back in 1936 to see if he was actually criminally insane, but everyone in charge had just kind of forgot. In apology, the New York courts offered the now tragically old dude $115,000 to make up for them accidentally completely ruining his life. So ... happy ending, right? This time?
Ha, no. Once he accepted the cash, the government said "Gotcha!" and claimed that Dennison wasn't actually entitled to it. Our point here, we guess, is never fucking shoplift.
Robin Warder is the co-owner of a pop culture website called The Back Row and was recently involved in the making of a sci-fi short film called Jet Ranger of Another Tomorrow.
Related Reading: Just in case this article didn't convince you, not every part of the legal system works. You've heard of police line-ups? Well they're a waste of time. And you won't have any faith in the law left once you read about this jury who consulted an ouija board. Still not sure our justice system is utterly wrecked? Read on.