Richard Phillips spent over 45 years in jail for a crime he did not commit; he was 71 years old when he tasted freedom again. Based on one person’s word, the brother-in-law of the man who was murdered, Phillips was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1972.
It took a confession, polygraph test and a legal motion filed in court seven years after the real criminal confessed, not to mention 45 years of wrongful deprivation of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” before Phillips was exonerated in 2017.
Until his million-dollar wrongful conviction check, Phillips left prison with only a monthly stipend of $500 from social security and $89 worth of food stamps.
The state of Michigan waited one year until they felt like Phillips deserved $1.5 million in compensation for his lost time.
His mother died while he was locked up
Since 2012, the National Registry of Exonerations has been compiling a list of those wrongfully accused and jailed dating back to 1989. So far, 2,482 people have been exonerated in the United States who collectively lost almost 22,000 years of free life.
According to the Innocence Project, there are currently 15 states and the District of Columbia that don’t guarantee exonerated people, who on average will spend more than 14 years behind bars, compensation once they’ve been freed. The federal government doesn’t grant any financial security for the innocent trying to live life after prison either.
“I hate it,” Audrey Edmunds told the New York Times after wrongly spending a decade in prison for the death of an infant. “They put us through enough to begin with. They don’t give us any assistance. I’m glad to be out, but there’s got to be more support. I don’t like having this awful nightmare of a cloud hanging over me.”
Two criminal-justice researchers found that one-third of the 118 exonerated inmates studied still had a criminal record, even after a decade since their release. Some states actively prevent the wrongfully convicted from moving on with their lives.
Vincent Moto spent 10 years in prison after he and another man were convicted of dragging a woman into a car at gunpoint, then robbing and raping her repeatedly. The victim identified him as one of her attackers, but DNA evidence later proved Moto wasn’t connect to that crime at all. He was finally freed in 1996.
Moto told the New York Times he struggles to find work and lives on a monthly disability check but has the possible foreclosure of his Philadelphia home looming over his head.
“Who wants to take a chance on someone who was locked up for 10 and a half years,” he asked.
Moto tried filing a petition for his record to be expunged in 2007, but his state chose not to see him as anything but a criminal. Because the victim named Moto as one of his attackers, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled his charges should stay on Moto’s record.
DNA evidence may have freed Moto from prison, but at least he was guaranteed shelter and food while in there.
The National Registry of Exonerations also broke down cases of the wrongly accused by race and found that as of October, 2016, almost 50 percent of the 1,900 exonerated people were black. African Americans only account for 13 percent of the American population.
And while innocent black people far outweigh innocent white people in all major crime categories, murder, sexual assault and drug crimes produce the largest racial disparity in exonerations.
According to the Registry:
- Innocent black people are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.
- Black prisoners are three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent in sexual assault cases than white prisoners.
- Black and white people use illegal drugs at the same rate, but African Americans are five times more likely to go to prison for it and 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes than white people.
Since 1989, the Registry found that African Americans were the majority of 1,800 people who were convicted for drug crimes that never existed in 15 large-scale police scandals.
Based on one crooked cop’s word alone, 39 defendants, almost all African American, were convicted of selling cocaine in Tulia, Texas between 1999 and 2000. The governor freed 35 of them in 2003 after he called Tom Coleman “the most devious...law enforcement witness this court has witnessed…”
Turned out the award-winning cop planted drugs that he took from his personal stash so he could charge the group. Coleman was fired from his deputy sheriff position and later indicted for theft in a different Texas county before he was hired as an undercover agent in Tulia. The Texas Department of Public Safety named him the 1999 “Outstanding Lawman of the Year” after arresting 46 people in total on those false drug charges. Coleman was convicted of perjury in 2005.
Minorities and the poor are the most affected by unjust police targeting due to their lack of resources and representation in government. Those dealing with mental disabilities suffer even more.
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, jails in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York hold more mentally ill inmates than psychiatric hospitals in the United States. They estimated approximately 383,000 mentally ill people were behind bars in 2014 instead of receiving treatment in a hospital.
But not every incarcerated mentally disabled person was convicted for crimes committed while not in a rational state of mind. For two New Jersey brothers, they were coerced into a confession for a crime they had nothing to do with.
Teenagers Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were sentenced to death in 1984 for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in North Carolina. The brothers were from New Jersey but were visiting family in North Carolina at the time of Sabrina’s attack.
Both were also mentally disabled and pressured into a false confession by police. No physical evidence even connected the brothers to the crime.
After failing for decades to prove their innocence in court, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission agreed to take on the case in 2010. Using exonerating DNA evidence that pointed the crime in another direction, McCollum and Brown were freed from jail in 2014 and pardoned by the governor of North Carolina.
The cops involved in the arrest and prosecution of the brothers hid their suspicion that a known serial killer and rapist may have been responsible for the attack. They also hid the fact that a witness who testified against McCollum and Brown previously admitted they knew nothing about the case.
The district attorney who prosecuted the brothers told the New York Times, “No question about it, absolutely they are guilty,” after McCullum and Brown were vindicated.
Joe Freeman Britt’s successor and relative, Johnson Britt, called him a bully while in office.
“People were afraid of him,” he said. “Lawyers were afraid of him. They were intimidated by his tactics. And he didn’t mind doing it that way.”
The exonerations registry calculated the government spent over $2.2 billion compensating those who’ve been wrongfully convicted as of last August. It costs about $100 per day to house an inmate in prison. With exonerees collectively spending almost 22,000 years in prison, when calculated, the government has wasted more than $3 billion for wrongful convictions. Statistics show, if for no other reason, it’s simply cheaper if the judicial system did its job correctly.