The Innocent Men
In generations gone by, suspected murderers were often convicted simply on the basis of witness testimony and shaky evidence if any- resulting in many people eventually being executed while the question of their relative guilt or innocence was never properly answered with solid evidence or reliable testimony. Ironically, situations just like this continued in the United States in huge numbers until the 1990s, when DNA technology made it possible to scientifically link a suspect to a victim or crime scene (Croteau). While false convictions still happen today, DNA has saved many innocent men. This paper will discuss several of those men, their cases, and the role that special legal projects played in helping them as well.
In 1996, a 17 year old African-American named Nathaniel Hatchett found himself in a living nightmare. He had been arrested in Michigan, being held on $1million bail from charges of carjacking, kidnapping, armed robbery and sexual assault. Ultimately, Hatchett was convicted in a court of law of these charges and spent nearly 12 years in prison as punishment (The Exoneration of Nathaniel Hatchett). The only problem with the case was that Hatchett had been chemically eliminated as a suspect by Michigan crime lab officials, proving his innocence. It was only when the Innocence Project took his case that he was cleared of the charges, but not before suffering in an awful prison environment.
While the details of the Innocence Project are discussed later in this paper, suffice it to say at this point that it was only due to the efforts of dedicated individuals who made the effort to prove this young man’s innocence that he was freed. Sadly, organized law enforcement for whatever reason chose to ignore important evidence. This is not the first, or last case either, as we will now see.
In 2006, a 41 year old Massachusetts woman was brutally murdered, and someone had to pay for the crime. Ultimately, police in the town of Worcester arrested a homeless man named Donnie Scott for the crime, Unlike Nathaniel Hatchett, he was not convicted, but nonetheless was forced to spend 2 years in jail until DNA testing finally proved that he was not a suspect in the crime, and in fact there were other possible suspects for the crime itself . Released a few days before Christmas , Scott found himself literally out in the cold after the nightmare of his life; ironically, there were other suspects that were unfairly treated in this case and eventually cleared through DNA technology as well (Croteau).
Donnie Scott escaped a long sentence, or even a death sentence, but once again, the fallout from his experience would haunt him for years to come. Living (and dying) nightmares after being cleared were also the case in discussing Ron Williamson, a man who was the subject of a book by a major American author, but sadly the victim of circumstances in the end, as well as others whose story was told in print as well.
Ron Williamson & Others
For Ron Williamson, his younger years were full of promise, as he hoped to become a major league baseball star; however, drug and alcohol problems killed that dream, and he eventually drifted back to his hometown of Ada, Oklahoma, a small town with an active nightlife. In the winter of 1982, a young lady named Debbie Carter was brutally murdered in her own apartment. Police, running short on suspects, soon focused on Ron Williamson, who was eventually convicted and sentenced to death for the crime. By the time of his conviction, Williamson’s substance abuse problems made him unable to defend himself or speak out, and he soon found himself on Oklahoma’s death row. Days from execution, Williamson was cleared by DNA testing, but his mind and body were ruined. Within a few years, he was dead from liver disease, brought on no doubt by the chemicals he abused even more after his prison experience in order to try to kill the pain of the past (Grisham).
In Grisham’s book, The Innocent Man, he also tells of other men who were falsely accused and later cleared by proper forensic evidence. One of the most interesting is Greg Wilhoit, accused of killing his wife based on bite marks taken from her body, which when properly examined by experts, did not match Mr. Wilhoit’s teeth, freeing him as well.
DNA and the Innocence Project
Earlier, the Innocence Project was discussed in relation to the Hatchett case. This Project needs better discussion at this point. The Cooley Innocence Project was started in May, 2001 as a project of the Cooley Law School in an effort to use DNA technology to prove the innocence of crime suspects who have been falsely accused or convicted. Since that time, it is estimated that the Innocence Project has helped to clear over 150 falsely accused or convicted individuals, making a huge difference in the lives of many families and communities (The Exoneration of Nathaniel Hatchett).
The successful efforts of the Innocence Project and others like it shows that there are many innocent men in need of help so that they do not suffer due to improper legal systems. With the kinds of numbers that the Innocence Project has enjoyed in terms of helping truly innocent men, one wonders how many more are out there, awaiting assistance, knowing they are not guilty in any way.
As we have seen in this research, science offers a way to prevent innocent men from being executed in many cases; however, there also needs to be more activity in the future, such as the Innocence Project, to protect as many innocent men as possible from an unjust death.
Croteau, Scott. Slay Suspect is Set Free: DNA Not a Match. 2008, December. Retrieved April 5, 2009 from the World Wide Web: http://www.articlearchives.com/crime-law-enforcement-corrections/law-forensics-forensic/2255317-1.html
Grisham, John. The Innocent Man:Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. New York: Random House, 2007.
The Exoneration of Nathaniel Hatchett. Retrieved April 5, 2009 from the World Wide Web: www.nathanielhatchett.com.