The story of one man, the face of 200,000Wrongly convicted in 1973, Maurice Carter spent decades confined to a prison cell before the Wisconsin Innocence Project helped set him free, nearly 29 years later
By Clarissa DribanIn the modest living space of a rundown Gary, Indiana home, they gathered: Doug Tjapkes, Reverend Al Hoksberger and Elizabeth "Mama" Fowler. A Mother’s Day tradition, they piled in the crowded room, bearing gifts, and hoping to bring happiness to an aging woman whose health was failing. Meant to be quality time with Fowler, for Doug, it was a constant reminder of someone’s absence. He forced a smile, masking his thoughts to cover his pain. It was to be a joyous ceremony. It’s for Maurice, he reminded himself. “Maurice sent this pretty flower to you,” Doug said, offering the plant to a delighted Elizabeth Fowler.
“He did? That Maurice, he never forget his mama. He was always a good boy!”
They chatted and ate. The phone rang. Maurice. “Hi Shorty,” he said lovingly, teasing his mother as she put her ear to the receiver. “Is that my baby?”
As the visit neared an end, the three stood together and held hands in prayer. From across the circle, Fowler stared into Doug’s eyes and asked the question he dreaded, bringing forth emotions he had fought to keep hidden.
“When is my baby coming home? He didn’t do nothing wrong!”
The truth was, her baby wasn’t coming home. Despite unwavering claims of innocence, Maurice Carter remained Michigan prison inmate number 145902, convicted for the 1973 shooting and attempted murder of off-duty Benton Harbor police officer Thomas Schadler. Had it not been for the tireless efforts of Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and Doug Tjapkes, Carter’s closet friend and ally, Carter may have never been granted medical commutation and released. He may have never walked into the arms of his 90-year-old mother, finally a free man at the age of 60. Freed from bondage, but not fully liberated from his tarnished name, Carter died of liver failure three months to the day after his release. The Michigan courts never proclaimed his innocence. He never returned home to Mama.
To some, Carter is one man, lost, forgotten. One tragic tale told for nearly 29 years from a prison cell, easily disregarded. To Findley, however, this gentle giant is the face of the more than two million Americans who remain behind bars, declaring their innocence and in need of legal services. He is one voice for the estimated 200,000 wrongfully convicted U.S. inmates whose pleas for exoneration fall on deaf ears. For Findley, Tjapkes and a strong community network committed to proving his wrongful conviction, Carter stands for an unjust system, where flimsy evidence kept a man locked away, and the strength of a community to set him free.
In March 1999, Carter’s world collided with Findley’s when the Wisconsin Innocence Project, co-founded in 1998 by Findley and colleague John Pray, agreed to represent his case. The program is a collaboration of the University of Wisconsin Frank Remington Center and the New York based Innocence Project, established in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Providing reliable legal services to wrongfully convicted individuals, the Wisconsin Innocence Project also gives law students valuable experience through immersion and exposure to such cases. As one of the first cases the team agreed to take on, Carter’s case proved to be a great challenge, due, in part, to the lack of DNA evidence often used to reverse wrongful convictions. Consequently, Findley and his helpers relied on unconventional methods of investigation. They hit the streets to collect new evidence and called upon the Benton Harbor community to bolster their case, igniting a political movement on behalf of Carter.
“We put together what everyone thought was a really powerful motion for a new trial,” says Findley. “This is a case where the only evidence was horrible eyewitness identification and sadly, we were rebuffed in the Michigan courts.” A determined Findley, backed by Tjapkes and the Citizens Committee for the Release of Maurice Carter, continued to push forward, convinced of his client’s innocence and disturbed by what he deemed one of the worst cases of injustice he had ever seen.
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On a January day in 2000, Findley, accompanied by two attorneys, five law students and Tjapkes, stand before a couple dozen Benton Harbor community members in the dim basement of a black Baptist Church. The meeting, called by the Innocence Project to discuss the lack of sufficient evidence used to convict Carter, was met with little response at first. Finally, a black pastor stood to speak, interrupting Findley. “Who says this man is innocent?” he asked.
At first, silence. Then, a stately black woman’s voice: “I say he’s innocent and I ought to know! I was the only witness to the crime.” Gwen Baird, the clerk in the store where the shooting occurred, got to her feet. “What you white people don’t understand is black people look at people in shades," Baird said. "They see complexion.” Having looked at the gunman for a good 15 minutes, Baird described a dark-skinned man, a contrary image to that of the light-skinned Carter.
“Had there been any black person on that jury, they would have realized this,” the former sales clerk concluded.
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The fact was an all-white jury convicted Carter. The only African American in the jury pool was removed prior to selection by her employer. In addition, of the 13 eyewitnesses who testified at the trial, none provided matching testimonies and only five identified Carter as the possible gunman. The three African American witnesses were all certain Carter was not the shooter.
“It is amazing they charged him, let alone convicted him,” remarks Pat Shellenbarger, a journalist at The Grand Rapids Press, whose close coverage of Carter's story exposed the racial undertones of the Michigan judicial system. “But, this was a case of a black man shooting a white cop and someone had to pay. Maurice was that someone."
Findley notes that mistaken eyewitness identification is a common cause of false convictions. These identifications, however, are often the primary determinant in trials, resulting in the conviction of an estimated 4,500 innocent people in the United States each year. In a study of eyewitnesses conducted by Pray, the professor concluded that “only about 30 percent of eyewitnesses can accurately identify a suspect within 20 minutes of an event.” In Carter’s case, witnesses testified two years after the shooting occurred.
Armed with Pray's study, Carter’s case and the cases of other wrongfully convicted individuals, the Wisconsin Innocence Project recently helped to pass legislation producing model policies and procedural guidelines for effective eyewitness identifications. Several other key legislative reforms, specifically in relation to the preservation of DNA evidence and the use of electronic devices in interrogation processes, were also passed due to the efforts of Findley and Pray.
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In October of 2003, Carter’s legal team entered the Berrien County Circuit Court, armed with a request to expedite the hearing on the motion for a new trial. Findley stressed the urgency of moving forward with Carter’s case due to his rapidly diminishing health. “Our concern is [that] he could take a turn and die tomorrow,” says Findley.
Judge Hammond calmly replied, “Most of us could die tomorrow."
Disheartened, Findley felt the lasting sting of the Berrien County justice system, a system that seemed to be constructing obstacles for his legal team every step of the way. Keith snapped. "Not of liver disease."
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“I don’t know if it was insensitivity, law and order attitudes, or if it was racism at work,” says Findley, “but there was a complete unwillingness to listen, to reevaluate the case.” An ant moving a molehill, Findley never backed down from trying to prove Carter’s innocence. His dedication to assisting the wrongfully convicted is apparent, not only in his commitment to the Carter case, but in his devotion to the Innocence Project as well.
“The things that keep you going are the small victories, though few and far between,” remarks Tjapkes. “Keith and his team worked relentlessly, giving their time and their tears, to create these successes. To some, Maurice’s name may not be cleared, but this does not reflect by any means a lack of pure determination by the Wisconsin Innocence Project.”
Findley and the Wisconsin Innocence Project continue to make great strides in affecting the state judicial system, furthering educational endeavors and providing aid to the wrongfully convicted still behind bars. A driving force even after his death, Carter's photograph hangs in Findley’s office, overshadowing the images of his own family. The photo, a grinning Carter embracing his mother, is the face of a free man; a man who represents the strength of a community and who remains a symbol of the work that still lies ahead.