Wrongful conviction goes against everything we believe in within our society. We were taught from our earliest school to believe in “innocence until proven guilty.” Like most wrongfully convicted persons, I believed that although I had been arrested and falsely accused of murder, our system would work itself out and I’d be acquitted. I sat in pre-trial detention in the Jackson County jail knowing I’d be acquitted and reclaim my life, but I would be proven wrong. Since the day of my conviction, I have awakened inside a prison cell serving a life term for a crime I did not commit and I have tried to approach each day with positively in spite of my situation. I’ve struggled to push out of my mind the injustice that occurred to me that lead me here and think positive and keep the faith, although I continue witnessing first hand so many negative outcomes that tug at my sense of hope.
There are countless innocents’ trapped behind the walls of Missouri’s jails and prisons, just like myself. Have you heard of the saying, “Everybody in prison says their innocent?” I assure you this is not true. The reality is that the conviction rate in the state of Missouri, particularly St. Louis City and Kansas City is well over 90% and the majority of these guilty defendants typically plea-bargain before ever stepping foot in a Courtroom to stand trial. The criminal justice system is designed to incriminate and convict. Criminal defense lawyers take on criminal cases without the intent of ever taking the cases to trial, whether the defendant understands this fact or not at the onset. The reality is that the majority of criminal defense lawyers in our state make a hefty living negotiating guilty pleas and convincing their clients to take the best deal the prosecutor offers and in a lot of instances, the first deal the state offers, unfortunately.
Choosing to take your case to trial often catches criminal defense attorneys by surprise leaving them ill-prepared to try your case, effectively. Many lawyers do not prepare for trial at all because they have become accustomed to “pleading all of their cases out” before trial. “Pleading out” is the practice of defense attorneys getting defendants to accept guilty pleas in exchange for foregoing their right to a jury trial.
The criminal process, on both ends of the spectrum, defense, and prosecution, is aimed at getting a conviction. The prosecuting attorney wishes to give you the lengthiest sentence under the law, while the defense attorney aims to get you the least amount of time under the law that he can muster through negotiation, but for the (falsely) accused, innocence gets lost in the process.
I know many inmates that were exonerated in Missouri over the past 10 years or so. Exonerees like Anthony Williams, Ryan Ferguson, Darryl Burton, Rodney Lincoln, Joseph Amrine, Eleanor Reasonover, and Reginald Griffin just to name a few. The reality is, these exonerees were truly blessed to have finally won their freedom after long bouts with the courts. It is not easy overturning a wrongful conviction after an innocent has been convicted in a criminal trial of a crime he or she did not commit. These innocent men won their freedom largely because their stories caught on and somebody believed in them and took a vested interest in their cases, something all innocent persons trapped within our system hope for, yet the reality for most is that help is often far away and for some may never come.
All wrongfully convicted inmates maintain the faint hope that someone, a law student, law clerk, paralegal, attorney, an advocate, or innocence group will take up our causes, but many of us are placed on the waiting list and put on the back-burner resulting in continued years of wrongful confinement.
What complicates receiving help is due in large part to the money that drives our system. Every conviction represents a dollar amount to the prosecution, the Department of Corrections (DOC), and criminal defense attorneys. The reality is that attorneys are profiting off of the system the way it is. Everyone benefits but the innocent prisoner or detainee and his family, and the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill.
Truth is, rarely do wealthy people go to prison and rarely will you find a wealthy person serving a wrongful conviction. Our criminal justice system is largely poverty and race-based. Nearly every prison I’ve served in has been managed predominantly by whites and predominantly housed by blacks and minorities. The numbers are mind-boggling! I would say approximately 85% of the Missouri prison system is African American, one of the largest black incarceration rates in the country. Many of these prisoners are from the lower classes and inner cities of St. Louis and Kansas City. This speaks volumes about our criminal justice system. Not only the fact that it is biased against blacks and minorities, but also, that our criminal justice system is also biased against the poor.
In our criminal justice system, simply put, you get the justice your money can buy. This in and of itself results in injustice. Innocence, until proven guilty, has been lost in our system. Our system is driven by money and greed, not deterring crime and rehabilitation as it should be. The system isn’t set up to ensure that the guilty go to prison and the innocent are exonerated, but instead, it is designed to get you the justice your money can buy. If you happen to be poor or underprivileged, you are likely to also be under-represented, or not represented at all.
If you are charged with a criminal offense and you are poor or working class, you are set up for failure from arraignment. You’ll be facing “un-even-handed” justice from the onset and particularly if you are represented by an (underfunded) Public Defender System made up of under-funded and under-trained attorneys lacking the resources needed, in many instances, to effectively defend criminal cases at trial
The resources allocated to the prosecution by the state greatly “outweighs” the resources allocated to protect indigents rights’ which unfairly tips the scales of justice in the favor of you being convicted regardless of guilt or innocence.
Take my case for example. The evidence was scant. There were no credible witnesses. No physical evidence; DNA, fingerprints, gun, etc. The problem in my case was, as it is often found to be true in criminal cases, the evidence of my innocence went unexplored. I did not receive adequate representation from my Public Defender leading up to and during my trial. I was unable to afford to hire a private attorney to represent me, and the judge in my case refused to allow me to fire the Public Defender even though I complained of misrepresentation. My innocence was lost at the moment I was appointed an underfunded and undertrained Public Defender who lacked the time and resources to devote to investigating my case to prepare an adequate defense for trial. The broken Public Defender System must be addressed in the criminal justice system if we are ever going to reform our system and prevent innocents from being wrongfully convicted.
The deck was stacked against me before I stepped foot in a trial as is the case with most indigent criminal defendants. It isn’t just bad lawyers working against defendants, but also bias in jury selection – juries are hand-picked to convict and the reality is that criminal defense lawyers have very little power to prevent biased jurors from being selected. The jury pool process – selecting a jury takes lots of time and resources for an attorney to perform effectively. A biased jury can cause a wrongful conviction, just like a biased jury can cause a guilty person to walk free as was the case of Trayvon Martin’s murder trial and the “unjustified” Law Enforcement killings where guilty police officers have been acquitted shaking our nation.
Another problem riveting our criminal justice system is prosecuting attorneys withholding “exculpatory” evidence – evidence of criminal defendants innocence. This is epidemic in the state of Missouri and so is the problem with lawyers not thoroughly investigating criminal cases to discover exculpatory evidence of a defendants innocence. The system is simply too “plea bargain” oriented and because of this, criminal defense lawyers are not equipped to try complex criminal cases when they do go to trial.
Each time I read or learn on the news that there has been another exoneration, as a wrongfully convicted person, I am elated and gain a sense of hope. However, whether the individual is compensated for their wrongful confinement, released, or pardoned, the story publicized in the news gets a little publicity, maybe a few shares on social media, and then it’s on to the next saga. Back to business as usual, while no lasting change happens to curtail the injustices. One man or one woman is exonerated and, sadly, the exoneree is replaced by two or three more innocents. The saga goes on and the tragedy never ends.
by Howard Frazier
& Edited by Anthony Williams
ABOUT HOWARD FRAZIER:
Howard is a wrongly convicted prisoner serving a Life sentence at the Jefferson City Correctional Center (JCCC) in Jefferson City, Missouri. The Director of Missouri Prisoner Advocacy Consulting (MOPAC), Anthony Williams, met Howard while he was serving time with Howard in Administrative Segregation (e.g., the hole) at JCCC. Howard and Anthony developed a bond while neighbors in the hole chatting back and forth through the “vent” connecting their cells. Howard shared his story of innocence with Anthony and Anthony shared his innocence story with Howard. Anthony and Howard’s friendship developed during the time Jennifer & Anthony were preparing to file there habeas for Anthony’s freedom. Howard says, “Anthony reinvigorated my hope that someday the truth would set me free.” To learn more about Howard’s story CLICK here:
You can write to Howard at:
2727 Highway K
Bonne Terre, MO 63628