April 28, 2007
Too often, justice is denied
A campus rape brought police detectives to my door three times during my
junior year at Marquette University. They quizzed me about my whereabouts
during the time of the crime.
By the third visit, I found myself annoyed and alarmed. Annoyed because I
matched the description of the suspect only in skin color. Alarmed because
the police were nonetheless persisting.
The case of Jerry Miller - the nation's 200th convicted defendant proved
innocent by DNA testing - got me to thinking about a big what-if: Suppose
the MU rapist had more closely resembled me. Among other details, he was
When Chicago police came knocking at Miller's door in 1981, the former Army
cook had the bad luck of resembling a composite drawing of the man had had
committed a brutal rape.
There was one difference: The drawing showed only a few days' growth of
facial hair, whereas Miller, arrested within three days of the incident,
sported a fully developed goatee. But that gave the authorities little
A jury found him guilty, and he spent 24 years behind bars. Paroled last
year, he suffered the additional humiliation of having to register as a sex
Thanks to the New York-based Innocence Project, DNA evidence formally
acquitted him of the crime last week and pointed to another man, Robert
Weeks, a prison inmate with a long record, including rape. He is currently
facing charges for two additional rapes, but, on account of the statute of
limitations, he won't stand trial for the assault for which Miller lost a
quarter-century of his life.
The Innocence Project has shone a light on the fallibility of the criminal
justice system. Two hundred defendants deemed guilty beyond a reasonable
doubt by juries were in fact innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.
Wisconsin juries wrongly convicted three defendants, all of sexual assault:
Fredric Saeker, who was sentenced in 1990 to 15 years in Buffalo County and
exonerated in 1996; Anthony Hicks, who was sentenced in 1991 to 20 years in
Madison and exonerated in 1997; and, yes, Steven Avery, who was convicted in
1985 for a crime in Manitowoc County and cleared in 2003. Of course, Avery
proved a poor poster child for wrongful convictions. A jury has convicted
him in the 2005 murder of photographer Teresa Halbach.
Reached in Cincinnati, where he was attending a conference for defense
lawyers, attorney Barry Scheck said he helped start the Innocence Project 15
years ago precisely to tap the potential of DNA evidence to scientifically
certify that some convicted people are innocent.
He notes that DNA applies only to 10% of criminal cases - the ones where
semen or blood or other bodily fluids are left at crime scenes.
"What about the 90% of cases?" he asks. The 10% sampling shows that a
certain share of the rest involves putting innocent people in the slammer.
As elsewhere, race plays a nasty role in wrongful convictions. The Innocence
Projects points out that, while 29% of people in prison for rape are black,
64% of those wrongfully convicted of that crime are black.
What's more, only a sliver (an eighth) of sexual assaults cross racial
lines. Yet, most (two-thirds of) black men exonerated through DNA evidence
were wrongfully convicted of raping white women.
The Miller case fit that mold. And, in retrospect, the MU rape case had that
Where were you? the cops wanted to know.
In my apartment studying. Oh, wait, I did take a break and went to Grebes
Did you see anybody along the way who could vouch for you?
The Innocence Project deflated our overblown faith in the criminal justice
It has also prompted second thoughts about capital punishment. You can't
bring executed defendants found to have been innocent back from the dead.
Source : Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Gregory Stanford is a Journal Sentinel
editorial writer and columnist. His e-mail address is