How Do Innocent People End Up Behind Bars? 6 Shocking Wrongful Convictions

"I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn't do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves," John Thompson said after he was exonerated.

Corey Williams walked free from a Louisiana prison this spring after spending two decades behind bars for a murder he said he didn’t commit. 

Williams, who is considered mentally disabled, was a teenager when he was convicted of murdering a pizza delivery man. Officials vacated his conviction this year. So what exactly happened?

His case involved egregious examples of prosecutorial misconduct, a leading cause of wrongful convictions. In 2017 alone, official misconduct was the cause of 84 of the nation’s 139 exonerations, according to the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations. Williams is one of many who saw the wrong side of the justice system because of official misconduct.

Here’s his story, and five more.

1. Corey Williams: Released on May 22, 2018

Williams was 16 when he was convicted of murdering a pizza delivery man in Shreveport, Louisiana and sentenced to death in 2000. Growing up, he regularly ate dirt, paper, and lead paint chips, and suffered from “the most extreme case of lead poisoning I’ve ever seen,” according to a psychologist who examined him. Due to his age and because he was considered mentally disabled — his IQ was 68 — his death sentence was reduced to life in prison in 2002, the Shreveport Times reported.

Williams maintained his innocence, telling police from the start that the two older men he was with were responsible for the murder. After a tiring night of interrogation, Williams gave a “confession” to police that he had shot the pizza delivery man, although it didn’t match up with other details of the crime. Throughout the investigation and trial, prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of one of the men who Williams said committed the crime, ignoring witnesses who said Williams was not involved — including police investigators, The Marshall Project reported.

Prosecutors refused to hand over police recordings of interviews with witnesses to Williams’ defense team, a request that must be honored under Supreme Court ruling Brady v. Maryland that states prosecutors must disclose all evidence that may be favorable to the defendant when asked for. Instead, they gave summaries that left out key statements in which witnesses exonerated Williams, according to The Washington Post.

The case was pending before the Supreme Court when Williams’ attorneys reached a plea agreement with Louisiana officials to vacate his murder conviction and sentence. After walking from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Williams’ stopped at a Starbucks for his first meal as a free man: a Caramel Frappucino. 

2. Andre Hatchett, Exonerated on March 10, 2016

Hatchett spent half of his life behind bars for a Brooklyn murder he didn’t commit before he was exonerated in 2016. He was charged with killing a woman who was found beaten, nude, and strangled on a city playground after he was selected out of a lineup by a single witness, Reuters reports. The witness claimed to have seen the attacker from 30 to 40 feet away.

She initially said he was not in the lineup but eventually selected Hatchett, a mentally disabled man who had been cooperating with police throughout the investigation. The witness was never called to testify during trial and the prosecution relied heavily on the account of a different witness who had received a deal in exchange for his testimony that was not disclosed, breaching official conduct.

A review of the case found that the witness had identified another man in the police precinct as the attacker on the night of the crime, information that was also not disclosed to the defense, according to The Innocence Project. Hatchett was serving his 25 years to life sentence when Brooklyn’s district attorney cleared him of the crime, according to the  AP.

3. John Thompson, Released on May 8, 2003

One month before Thompson was to be executed for the murder of a prominent New Orleans hotel executive during an armed robbery, investigators discovered that the prosecution had suppressed blood evidence that would have helped clear him of the crime. Shortly before the murder trial, Thompson was convicted of carjacking based on blood evidence. The prosecutor had held the trial before the murder trial in a bid to use the conviction against Thompson. He not testify in his own defense because that would have meant he would have had to disclose the carjacking conviction. They found that the prosecutor had concealed blood type results that did not match Thompson’s blood type, according to the Washington Post.

Thompson was cleared of his robbery conviction in 1999 and a judge reduced his sentence to life in prison without parole in 2001. Four years later, he was exonerated, the Times-Picayune reported. After his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at age 41, Thompson pressed charges against the prosecutors and district attorneys office, winning a $14 million ruling that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2007, he launched a non-profit, Resurrection After Exoneration, advocating for formerly incarcerated men. In a 2011 op-ed for the New York Times, Thompson wrote, "I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn't do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves."

4. Ralph Armstrong, Exonerated on July 31, 2009

Ralph Armstrong was implicated in the rape and murder of University of Wisconsin student Charise Kamps after Armstrong’s fiancee Jane May found Kamps naked and face down in a blood-soaked bed.

Armstrong told investigators that he and May had been partying with Kamps and others the night before, but that he spent the night at May’s apartment. He was charged with murder after a witness, with the help of hypnosis, identified him as the man he had seen leaving Kamps’ apartment, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

He was found guilty in 1981 and sentenced to life plus 16 years in prison.

In 1995, a woman called the assistant district attorney to report that Armstrong’s brother had said he committed the crime. At the time, the case was on appeal and the prosecutor never told Armstrong’s attorneys about the information until the woman testified at a hearing in April 2009. Additionally, the prosecutor had illegally moved evidence — a bathrobe with a semen stain — to analyze it without knowledge of the defense, WKOW reported. Therefore, the evidence that could have been used to clear Armstrong had been “consumed,” or destroyed.

With the advent of DNA testing, Armstrong tried to prove that the two head hairs found on the bathrobe belt on Kamp’s body were not his. Even though the DNA was not a match, a judge refused to grant him a new trial in 2001. Four years later, the Wisconsin Supreme Court granted him a retrial.

After 28 years of prison time, Armstrong’s case was dismissed in 2009; the judge declared that the prosecutor’s misconduct “stemmed from a series of conscious decisions that had very adverse consequences,” according to The Innocence Project.

5. Clarence Brandley: Exonerated October 1, 1990

Brandley was working as the only black custodian at a Texas high school when a 16-year-old student was raped and strangled. Brandley and fellow custodian Henry Peace found her body on August 23, 1980. At the time, Texas Ranger Wesley Styles reportedly told him and the other custodian who found the teenager, “One of you is going to have to hang for this, since you’re the n-----, you’re elected,” referring to Brandley, according the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations.

There was no evidence connecting Brandley to the crime, but he was charged with the murder. The judge declared a mistrial in his first trial due to insufficient evidence. Brandley was convicted in the second trial in 1981 with an all-white jury, and sentenced to death.

Less than a year later, his lawyers discovered that evidence that would have cleared their client of the crime had been destroyed, including semen, Caucasian pubic hair, and other hair that didn’t match Brandley or the student, Texas Monthly reported. A Texas court affirmed the conviction nonetheless.

Investigators found that the prosecution had withheld information about a woman who said her boyfriend told her he had committed the crime following the airing of a television program detailing the case. That disclosure eventually led Brandley’s attorneys to hidden evidence proving he did not murder the teenager and he was granted a new trial in 1989. Three years later, the prosecution dropped all charges and he was released from prison after spending nine years behind bars.

6. Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts: Released on September 19, 1975

Lee and Pitts were convicted of the 1963 murders of two white gas station attendants and sentenced to death. The pair denied they had any involvement in the crimes and were beaten by their interrogators, who coerced a confession out of them, the Tallahassee News reported.

In 1966, a prisoner, Curtis Adams Jr., confessed to the murders, telling law enforcement that he had gone to the gas station with the intention of robbing and killing the men. Despite the confession, the county refused to reopen the investigation, according to the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations.

The star witness, Willie Mae Lee, then took back her accusations against Lee and Pitts in an interview with county officials in 1968, saying that she had lied because she was threatened by the principal interrogator. The prosecution did not disclose this to the defense along with other evidence that would have aided in proving the two men's innocence.

In 1975, Governor Reubin Askew launched a review of the case at the request of one of the victim’s sons, who suspected that something was awry. Adams once again confessed to investigators and Askew pardoned Lee and Pitts on September 11, 1975, the New York Times reported.

 Interested in learning more? You can take a deeper dive into exonerations and wrongful convictions at the National Registry of Exonerations and the Innocence Project.

[Photo: Booking photos, Corey Williams via Shreveport Police Department]

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