It was nearly 50 weeks ago that the Minneapolis murder of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, under the knee of then-police officer Derek Chauvin, finally put the issue of police killings in America on the front burner. Today, millions of Americans can say the names of so many others who died unnecessarily, such as: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright, Elijah McClain, and Andrew Brown Jr. The gross injustice has spurred calls to ban choke holds, reduce traffic stops and take other strong measures.
Yet far fewer Americans who marched for racial justice in 2020 know the names of the Black men pictured at the top of this column — Jimmy Dennis, Anthony Wright, Terrance Lewis, Chester Hollman III, and Theophalis “Bilaal” Wilson. These men each lost liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and more than 20 years of life, wasting behind prison bars, and it all happened in the city where the Declaration of Independence was written and signed. Each was wrongfully convicted of a murder he didn’t commit, aided by a racist system of cops who coerced confessions or hid exonerating evidence, and prosecutors who cared more about a guilty verdict than the truth.
When we talk about police shootings, we know the grim numbers — that cops kill 1,000 or more people every year across America, including at least 135 unarmed Black men and women since 2015. Yet criminal justice experts believe the number of citizens behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit — especially Black people, predominantly men, charged with murder or other serious crimes — is greater, although harder to quantify. In Philadelphia — arguably the cradle of lost liberty, just a city of 1.5 million in a nation of 331 million — at least 24 men once convicted of murder have walked out of prison in the last five years, with more such cases in the pipeline.
Nationally, not every person ensnared in this injustice machine is as lucky — if that’s the right word — as the five men in the picture. In Arkansas, family members of Ledell Lee spent years pushing for DNA testing of a bloody club used in a woman’s 1993 murder for which Lee had been convicted and sentenced to death. This year, that test found a different man’s DNA — exonerating evidence that came four years too late for Ledell Lee, who was executed in 2017 as state officials were accused of racing to use lethal execution drugs before they ran out.
Just the invention of the smartphone has offered America visual proof of rampant police brutality that would have been easily covered up before the 21st century, and the rise of DNA technology has been critical in showing that wrongful convictions for violent crimes like murder or rape are far more common than once believed. And yet we still tend to treat these stories as isolated breakdowns or even as tragic mistakes — not as the systemic racism they represent.
Just last week in Philadelphia, a 38-year-old man named Obina Onyiah who’d signed a confession after an eight-hour interrogation for a 2010 robbery and double murder was exonerated after spending 10 years locked up. Onyiah’s claim that he’d been beaten by homicide detectives was backed up by his girlfriend who was outside the interrogation room and who told a judge in 2013 that she’d heard thumping sounds and Onyiah’s pleas for help. But the judge still allowed the confession as evidence. Only recently did the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Philadelphia DA’s office review video that proved the killer was four inches shorter than Onyiah.
“It’s been a long journey,” Onyiah’s mother, Nnena Agwu, told The Inquirer. “We suffered. They destroyed my whole family for something my son did not do.” The detectives who interrogated him have been linked to a string of other cases that have been tossed out or resulted in acquittals. For years, homicide detectives in Philadelphia had one of the highest clearance rates in the nation — peaking near 80% — but the number has plummeted to nearly half that, or 42%, since reforms aimed at ending coerced confessions or other abuses.
This weekend, my Inquirer colleague Samantha Melamed, who has been all over the wrongful-conviction saga in Philadelphia, launched a new database called The Homicide Files that seeks for the first time to quantify some of these alleged abuses by law enforcement, with a goal of calling attention to other possible wrongful convictions still in the pipeline.
The database and Melamed’s reporting chronicle a long list of dubious practices — for example, vulnerable people kept in isolation by police for lengthy periods (claimed in 62 cases) or parents who were threatened during questioning with the loss of a child (15 such allegations) — which, taken as a whole, are a stunning indictment of years of policing in Philadelphia. For decades, these abuses were overlooked or ignored by a series of “law and order” district attorneys such as Lynne Abraham — whose lengthy tenure produced a slew of wrongful convictions — who won reelection with these imprisoned Black men as collateral damage.
The current DA, Larry Krasner — locked in what seems to be a close primary fight with a challenger endorsed by the city’s Fraternal Order of Police — beefed up the Conviction Integrity Unit, considered an afterthought at best by his predecessors, when he arrived in 2018. The aggressive leader of that unit, Patricia Cummings, told Melamed her team is looking closely at 140 cases, with a whopping 1,400 still waiting for review. Cummings said “I think we’ve got a huge problem” around homicide investigation practices.
But it’s not just Philadelphia’s problem. It a huge problem in Baltimore, where three then-teenagers — Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart — were framed by homicide cops for a murder they didn’t commit and spent 36 years imprisoned. And in Chicago, where more than 80 men and women have been exonerated in a scandal over a disgraced police sergeant whose unit planted drugs on suspects in a housing project named for the legendary anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells. And in Brooklyn, where a stunning review of 25 wrongful convictions totaling 426 lost years in prison — all but one of the defendants Black or brown, all but one male — showed patterns of coerced confessions, shoddy eyewitness testimony or witnesses with credibility problems.
That’s why it’s a little disappointing there’s been less of a concerted push for wrongful-conviction reforms than the nationwide flurry of bills and initiatives aimed at reducing police shootings and brutality. The Innocence Project, the leading organization fighting wrongful convictions, has supported legislation to open up police disciplinary records that in at least 21 states — including New Jersey — are shielded from the public, making it harder for journalists and defense lawyers to uncover patterns of misconduct.
Then there is the weight of legal precedent. For example, Pennsylvania is one of a minority of states that — thanks to a state Supreme Court ruling in 1986, at the height of the “law and order” era — allows prosecutors to introduce statements from witnesses later seeking to recant their initial testimony. Historically, prosecutors, judges and juries give a lot of weight to these statements, despite the mounting evidence of rampant police misconduct.
But as Philadelphia has shown, the arrival of a progressive, pro-reform prosecutor has at least undone some of the damage. Voters here in the May 18 primary should note the contrast between Krasner, who’s seen 20 murder exonerations under his watch, and his challenger Carlos Vega. Vega has said he supports a strong conviction review unit but the former assistant DA has struggled to explain his role as a prosecutor in the 2016 murder retrial of Anthony Wright, even after DNA evidence pointed to Wright’s innocence.
Wrongful convictions are a symptom of the same pathology that causes police brutality and unjustified shootings. Both rob life from predominantly Black and brown men — the only difference being the hope of liberation and belated redemption for those who’ve surrendered their freedom to police or prosecutorial misconduct. The disease is a broken culture of policing in America that’s hopelessly infected with systemic racism, and it’s why we need a new public-safety regime, not tinkering around the edges. The next time we march for racial justice, be sure to say their names: Shaurn Thomas. Lamonte McIntyre. DeMarlo Berry. Eric Kelley. Ralph Lee. Jahmir Harris. And God only knows how many more.