Some people confess to a crime they did not commit to avoid the threat of a more severe sentence, the New York Times reports.
A result can be that a wrongly convicted person is reluctant to tell the truth for fear of being denied parole.
“Parole hearings create a terrible Catch-22 for those who have been convicted. If they admit guilt, they can undermine any attempt to overturn their conviction. If they continue to assert their innocence, they can doom their best chance at freedom — parole — because parole applications effectively require statements of remorse,” said David Leonhardt of the New York Times.
Tens of thousands of people have been wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit, said the Dec. 6, 2021, Times article.
“Whatever the true number, it’s large enough for alarm,” wrote Leonhardt. “Our criminal justice system
regularly puts a higher priority on winning a conviction than on achieving justice — and Black and Latino Americans are disproportionately imprisoned as a result.”
There are more than two million people incarcerated in the U.S., and Leonhardt points out those wrongful convictions happen when police do not pursue active leads that may exonerate the innocent.
The Times cites the case of two Louisville, Kentucky, Black men, Jeffrey Clark and Keith Hardin, incarcerated in their early 20s. They spent more than 20 years in prison before lawyers from the Innocence Project helped to exonerate them based on DNA evidence and the detective’s dishonesty, the Times reported.
“Even in factual innocence, there are factors that still exist, such as, a person’s defects of character, childhood traumas, and a distorted belief system that must be addressed — which is required when appearing before the Board of Parole Hearings,” said San Quentin resident Kevin “S.K.” Sample.
Analysts have found that 4.1% of Death Row prisoners deserved to be exonerated — which is a conservative estimate, reported the Times.
A 16-year-old New Yorker, Huwe Burton, was allegedly coerced into falsely confessing that he stabbed his mother to death. Attempting to gain parole, he dropped his claim of innocence. Later he was found factually innocent and a judge vacated his conviction.
“The starkest injustice is the large number of people imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.” wrote Leonhardt.
Suggested ideas for minimizing wrongful convictions and changing the narrative include banning the testimony of jailhouse informants, requiring that interrogations be recorded, expanding post-conviction DNA testing, and increasing the penalties for police officers who lie or manipulate evidence.
“A person must have actually and factually committed a crime in order to take responsibility for it,” said SQ resident Derek Pierson.
Factual innocence claims at parole board hearings have the consequences of having an innocent person serving decades in prison, Pierson noted.
“People who maintain their innocence remain in an impossible situation,” said Michelle Lewin, executive director of the Parole Preparation Project.
“Proving factual innocence at the board is like trying to checkmate an opponent using just a knight and a king” said Sample.
“One way to prevent parole dilemmas…is for parole boards to make decisions based more on a person’s rehabilitation and risk to the community and less on their stated guilt or innocence,” said Julia Salazar, a Democratic New York state senator.
Salazar has proposed a bill that would address these issues and has significant support in the Legislature.
“If a person is arguing factual innocence before the board, there is a 0.1 percent possibility of getting a [parole] date, if you have a life sentence,” said Sample.