October 2 is the rightful time to observe Wrongful Conviction Day. In 2013, the Innocence Network—a consortium of 71 pro-bono and investigative service organizations—began using the date to raise awareness for those convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Nine years later, there’s still endless work to be done. And here in New York, wrongful convictions rank third nationwide, trailing only behind Texas and Illinois, according to leading grassroots organization Vocal-NY. The group’s Civil Rights Union leader Roger Clark says he was wrongfully convicted for a shooting at age 20 and is still seeking exoneration years after he was paroled.
“You wonder, ‘well, why am I feeling so depressed?” he said. “It takes away a piece of humanity, whenever they do something like that, even though most of us remain calm and don’t do [anything] stupid. It really eats at you inside, because the state is supposed to protect you or make sure that you are okay and that nobody is abused. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Last month, a report from the University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations found Black Americans make up over half of those with overturned wrongful convictions nationwide.
“We really talk about the three crimes which had the largest numbers of exonerations in the registr: murder, drug crimes, and sexual assault, in that order,” said Samuel Gross, one of the report’s authors. “Drug crimes are the second most common exonerations, but they’re very different from the other two. Murder and rape are [severely] violent crimes and they’re investigated by police when a crime is reported.”
But with a few exceptions, drug crimes are never reported. Gross, an emeritus retired law professor at the University of Michigan, says Black Americans and white Americans buy illicit drugs at nearly identical rates. Yet innocent Black people are 19 times as likely as their white counterparts to be convicted of a drug crime.
“The police essentially have to choose where to go to look for drug crimes, how to pursue possible drug crimes, who to investigate—and they do that,” said Gross. “The main way they do that is by stopping people and searching. And they do that disproportionately with people of color, and especially Black people, and this is not a secret.
“This is what’s known as racial profiling. One of the effects of that means that they could pursue pretty much anybody they want to for drug crimes, because drug crimes are so prevalent.”
For murder exonerations, the report highlights disparities in misconduct and delays. Official misconduct is more prevalent in homicide cases with Black defendants and Black murder exonerees spending significantly longer in prison than white murder exonerees. Alfonzo Riley was granted clemency by ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo after serving 30 years for a murder where someone else pulled the trigger. Today, he works as a paralegal casehandler for the Legal Aid Society’s Wrongful Conviction Unit, a longstanding cardholder in the Innocence Network.
“This particular position is probably one of the most meaningful jobs that we can have in the legal shield trying to help free somebody that’s been wrongfully convicted,” said Riley. “It’s become a passion, because of my connection and experience with it. And I just want to continue to help others.”
In 2019, he teamed up with attorney Elizabeth Felber and ex-NYPD detective investigator Thomas “TJ” McCall, forming an unlikely trio to fight wrongful convictions under the Legal Aid Society banner.
“Alfonzo, we call him Google, because he’s the font of knowledge—when he was wrongly locked up, he was a law librarian and he has a great deal of knowledge,” said Felber.
She says Riley is quite the celebrity when they visit prisons. As for McCall, the unit’s “beloved” investigator resigned last month, but still refers to his work in present and future tense.
“One of the quotes that I had [heard] early in my time at Legal Aid [was], ‘I’d rather have 100 guilty men go free than have one innocent man in jail,’” said McCall. “It really, really stuck with me.”
Through an arraignment case, he recalls realizing how easy it was for someone to be wrongfully convicted. But the unit was there to protect the young man from such a fate. McCall managed to secure surveillance footage of his client playing football and eating subway sandwiches at the time of a robbery he was charged for.
“I always felt like if we weren’t doing what we were doing…he could very well have been facing state trial [and] at possible jail time if he was found guilty.”
But McCall says there’s so many cases in New York City and too few people working on them. Felber mentions a backlog of roughly 200 cases for their unit. And not every case can be an overturned conviction—at times, getting clients who maintain their innocence paroled is the closest thing to justice possible. And there are those who seek to clear their name after release like Clark. He says convictions make it harder to find employment and housing despite state law protections.
As for solutions, Clark mentions bail reform as a game-changer.
“I went to Rikers Island, I couldn’t pay a $10,000 bail,” he said. “After a year of them taking me to court back and forth, to my detriment, I take the plea.”
Clark adds finding witnesses to prove his innocence would have been easier if he wasn’t in jail.
“There’s been so much misinformation on bail reform, it’s sadly predictable,” said Felber. “Many people take guilty pleas because they just want to get out of jail. It happened in cases I had where [clients] had a viable defense or [an] unlawful search and people would just take a plea to get the case over with.
“There is this pesky thing we have called the presumption of innocence, which I think they tend to forget about.”
The Legal Aid Society will be hosting its Wrongful Conviction Day event over Zoom on Oct. 6.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w