By Freddie Allen
NNPA News Service
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – On October 24, 1974 an unidentified man robbed and raped a pregnant Wayne State University student in a bathroom on campus. The student later picked 19 year-old Edward George Carter, out of a photo lineup that contained multiple pictures of the Black teen.
None of the physical evidence – fingerprints, semen and seminal fluid – collected from the scene connected Carter to the crime. Still, he was still arrested and charged with sodomy, armed robbery and assault in the Recorder’s Court for the City of Detroit.
Carter’s lawyer was a court-appointed public defender with the ink barely dry on her law school degree. She allowed Carter waive his right to a jury trial, permitted the prosecutor to submit the photo lineup as evidence and raised no objections to the prosecution’s theory about why the semen and seminal fluid didn’t match Carter’s blood type. There is no record that she requested fingerprints from the scene from the police department.
The young attorney, just 18 months into her career, met with Carter just twice, once at his preliminary hearing and again the day before his trial, when she learned that he had a 17-year-old girl as an alibi witness. By then it was too late. In 1975, Carter was sentenced to life in prison.
Three decades later, still professing his innocence, Carter reached out to a non-profit group specializing in exonerating wrongfully convicted inmates through the use of DNA. That evidence was lost, but a curious police officer found the fingerprints from the crime scene and ran them through the FBI database. The prints matched another man, a habitual sex offender convicted of two armed rapes committed on the Wayne State campus among other charges. Ironically, another group of young attorneys working with the University of Michigan Clinical Law Program helped to free Carter. A judge vacated his conviction two years ago.
By then, Edward George Carter had served 35 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.
Carter’s story was just one of the nearly 900 cases chronicled in the National Registry of Exonerations, a database that tracks cases of men and women in the U.S. who were later freed after faulty convictions.
University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, editor of the registry, said: “In most cases we never learn about them,” Gross said. “The defendants serve their time and try to put it behind them or die in prison. In those cases that we do we find out about years after the fact, sometimes decades after the fact, it’s very hard to go back and figure out what happened.”
The Registry, a collaborative effort between the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, has been 10 years in the making. Its report this month on 873 exonerations listed as of March 1, 2012.
University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross and editor of the registry said that it’s likely that many more cases of exonerated defendants exist that they just don’t know about.
In 2008, 38 percent of state and federal prisoners were Black compared to 34 percent of Whites. Yet, Blacks accounted for 50 percent of the exonerations while Whites accounted for 38 percent of the false convictions.
“Unfortunately it doesn’t surprise me,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. “We know that African-Americans are over-represented in the justice system.”
“When it comes to the exonerations, what we’re seeing to a certain extent, is an overlap between issues of race and class,” Mauer said.
According to the National Poverty Center, 27.4 percent of Blacks and 9.9 percent of Whites were poor in 2010.
“Low-income people frequently don’t have good legal representation or access to expert witnesses or investigations on their cases,” Mauer said.
These factors make it more likely that poor people face the chance of being falsely convicted.
According to Gross there is no official record keeping system for exonerations in the U.S. Researchers rely on the known cases to piece together the tragic picture of lifetimes lost and unsolved crimes
Gross found that mistaken eyewitness identifications played a significant role in false convictions, including 80 percent of all sexual assault exonerations. Blacks accounted for 25 percent of the sexual assault convictions compared to 32 percent for Whites. Although interracial rape is rare, sexual assault convictions involving Black defendants and White victims made up 53 percent of all sexual assault cases with mistaken eyewitness identifications.
Gross said that cross-racial identification is an obvious problem that not only threatens the accuracy of eyewitness evidence, but the entire American criminal justice system.
In “They All Look Alike: the Inaccuracy of Cross-racial Identifications” April 2001 article published in the American Journal of Criminal Law, John Pr. Rutledge wrote:
“A cross-racial ID occurs when an eyewitness of one race is asked to identify a particular individual of another race. The last half-century’s empirical study of cross-racial IDs has shown that eyewitnesses have difficulty identifying members of another race, though the degree to which this difficulty affects the accuracy of an eyewitness ID is not certain. Likewise, it is unclear whether all races are affected.
“Known as the ‘own-race’ effect or ‘own-race’ bias, eyewitnesses experience the ‘cross-racial impairment’ when attempting to identify individuals of another race. The ‘own-race effect’ is ‘strongest when white witnesses attempt to recognize black subjects,’ and apparently less influential to black witnesses.”
Gross, editor of the online registry, observed: “African-Americans are a minority so African-Americans deal with Caucasians much more than Caucasians deal with African-Americans. Many White people have very few dealings with African-Americans and don’t learn to distinguish them from each other. African-Americans can’t afford that.”
The most common causes of false convictions were perjury (51 percent), mistaken eyewitness identification, (43 percent), and official misconduct (42 percent). As more cases continue to come to light, Gross said that researchers will better understand the causes of false convictions and learn how to prevent them.
“I hope the vast majority of the time that people are convicted are guilty,” Gross said. “But we make mistakes and we should keep that in mind when we consider cases after the fact when someone is able to present evidence that they may be innocent.”
Mauer agreed, adding that the Registry should help call attention to the need for greater safeguards and oversight in the criminal justice system.
“There are evolving new standards for how we use eyewitness identification, which has been a significant problem,” Mauer said. “There’s a need for more vigorous DNA testing in appropriate cases and ultimately better resources for the court systems and particularly defense attorneys.”