Actual Innocence


You're glancing through your morning paper when you see a story about a terrible assault in your neighborhood. Included in the story is a physical description of the suspect, and that description sounds a lot like you. Suddenly the police knock at your door and ask you about your whereabouts the night before. You were home alone. You spoke to no one. You own a red jacket like the perpetrator. You're dragged down to the police station, questioned for hours, hauled in front of a line-up. The victim swears you're ...
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You're glancing through your morning paper when you see a story about a terrible assault in your neighborhood. Included in the story is a physical description of the suspect, and that description sounds a lot like you. Suddenly the police knock at your door and ask you about your whereabouts the night before. You were home alone. You spoke to no one. You own a red jacket like the perpetrator. You're dragged down to the police station, questioned for hours, hauled in front of a line-up. The victim swears you're the man who assaulted her. And so, after a two-day trial, you're sentenced to twenty years in jail. You're innocent. But with the whole criminal justice system arrayed against you, how can you prove it?

Far-fetched? It happened to Tony Snyder, in Alexandria, Virginia. Unfortunately, such scenarios occur every day in this country. Lazy police officers, crusading and hostile district attorneys, shaken and unreliable witnesses, coerced false confessions, corrupt crime labs, lying jailhouse snitches, biased juries - all of these obstacles confront the wrongfully accused in a criminal justice system geared more to get a conviction than get at the truth.

This powerful book tells the story of innocent people put in prison because one or another aspect of the system failed. In each case, the lawyers of the Innocence Project worked pro-bono to free these individuals, a struggle that can take years, even after DNA evidence has definitively cleared the suspects.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
[Starred review] A report on the many ways justice can go astray and an innocent person be convicted. Perhaps one of the more shocking of their revelations is the unreliability of eyewitness testimony; they present a case in which three eyewitnesses separately identified the defendant as a rapist/robber. [The authors] offer a litany of such errors, along with detailed case histories. [They] offer concrete advice on how these dangers can minimized. This is an alarming wake-up call to those who administer our justice system that serious flaws must be addressed to protect the innocent.
Library Journal
Scheck and Peter Neufeld, founders of the Innocence Project, along with journalist Jim Dwyer, give details of persons wrongfully convicted and imprisoned and, in doing so, point out problems with the American criminal justice system. Many of the people were victims of incompetent public defenders or overzealous prosecutors; some were identified by mistaken eyewitnesses, others by jailhouse snitches only too eager to make deals for themselves. Many of the imprisoned were released through DNA evidence that proved that they could not have committed the crimes; yet, as the authors show, the system sometimes moves much more slowly in redressing a wrong than in creating one. Throughout, though, the major emphasis is on the stories of the convicted themselves, gripping and anguished tales of injustice. Intelligently read by Michael Boatman, who lets the dramatics of the tales speak for themselves, this will make all listeners rethink their notions of justice and sentencing. Very highly recommended for all collections.--Sally G. Waters, Stetson Law Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Allen Boyer
This timely, troubling book deals with . . . men wrongly convicted of rape and murder . . . who were able to prove that they were innocent . . . What this book does compellingly argue . . . is the need to presume a suspect innocent . . .
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553526943
  • Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/15/2000
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Abridged, 3 cassettes, 5 hrs. 15 min.
  • Product dimensions: 4.46 (w) x 7.09 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Daily News.
Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer are among the United States' leading experts on innocence issues. Scheck and Neufeld founded and direct the Innocence Project, which seeks postconviction release through DNA testing. Perhaps the most prominent civil rights attorneys in the country, both are in private practice in New York City. Dwyer, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News, began inquiring into wrongful convictions in 1992. He is also the author of Subway Lives: 24 Hours in the Life of the New York City Subway, and co-author of Two Seconds Under the World, an account of the World Trade Center bombing.

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Read an Excerpt

An Innocence Project

Trapped in a wilderness of wrong places, Inmate 85A6097 howled, body and soul. His skin erupted. His teeth rotted. His feet grew warts too big for his shoes. His lungs flooded with pneumonia. His scalp dried to sand, his hemorrhoids burned so hot that only a surgeon's knife could cool them. He was often cranky and defiant with the prison staff, so whatever time he did not pass at sick call or in a hospital usually was spent in a disciplinary program.

Marion Coakley had been a young man when he entered prison to serve a fifteen-year sentence for rape, and everyone who met him agreed that he was a simple soul and a difficult convict. "Marion is mentally retarded and a very angry individual," wrote a prison psychologist, one of many to use those words after meeting Coakley. "He has little insight into his behavior." The one bright note in his record was sounded by a prison teacher, who said that even though Marion understood little, he tried hard. She awarded him a certificate of merit for successfully memorizing the multiplication tables from zero to nine. He was thirty-two years old.

At ten minutes to five on September 3, 1987, Marion rose from the cafeteria table in the Fishkill penitentiary where he had been resolutely chewing every last bite. He was alone. Moments before, his unit had been ordered to leave the dining area. It was two years to the week since he had arrived in prison, and he certainly knew the rules required him to leave the table promptly when ordered. But Marion continued munching until he was good and ready.

He pushed back his chair and strolled over to a trash can to dump his tray. At the doorway, CorrectionsOfficer T. Hodge waited.

"When the unit officer calls your unit to leave the mess hall, you have to leave," said Hodge.

"I wasn't finished," said Coakley.

"Doesn't matter, you had your time to eat," said Hodge. "When you're called, you're supposed to leave."

"I'm a man," roared Coakley. "I'll leave when I am done eating. And nobody's gonna tell me what to do!"

A supervisor, a corrections sergeant, walked over to serve as a human blanket on the fuss. The inmates ate in shifts, and a new cohort was waiting at the doors. The officers wanted to move Coakley out of the way quickly and quietly, before any sympathetic rumble could gather force.

"I ain't gonna leave till I'm finished," yelled Coakley, whirling his arms. "Now I'm finished, so I'm leaving."

"Please keep your arms at your side," said the sergeant.

"I ain't doing nothing, finishing my dinner," said Coakley, palms up, a shrug that did not mean surrender.

"This is a direct order: Keep your arms at your side," said the sergeant. Coakley dropped his arms.

"Give me your ID card," said Officer Hodge.

"Don't have it," said Coakley, an automatic infraction.

Another sergeant arrived, and the three officers quickly pinioned Coakley's arms to his side and rushed him away. He was put under immediate "keep-lock," an on-the-spot discipline administered to prisoners who pose threats to the order of the institution. He was confined to Cell 20.

As soon as the door closed behind the guards, Marion knew what he was facing, because already he had passed four months under keep-lock and related disciplines. He would lose his commissary privileges, his phone call privileges, and his package privileges. Visitors, too, most likely. He would not be allowed to leave his cell for much of the day because he would have no prison job to go to.

"This ain't right," he screamed. "This ain't right."

Then he did to his cell what his body had done to him during his two years of confinement. He slowly, solitarily wrecked the place.

The bedding was first to go. He hated the bed that owned too much of his nights and days. "I do not like to laying up doing noetin," he had written a few months earlier, asking to be released from an earlier keep-lock regimen. Now he hurled the mattress and blanket to the floor. He slammed the bed frame into the door, pounding away until it fractured. With a bar broken from the bed, he pulverized the sink. And with anything he could grab—paper, pillowcases, clothes—he stuffed the toilet bowl, where he had bled from his tortured hemorrhoids.

A small group of corrections officers gathered outside the cell, listening to the destruction. They saw water flowing under the door from the clogged toilet and busted plumbing. When the racket had settled for a minute, one of the guards shouted at Coakley to knock it off.

Marion responded by using the bed frame to batter the metal screen of the observation window in the door. The window screen buckled at the assault; then the glass shattered, flying into the courtyard of the cell block. "I want to see the warden," howled Coakley. "I don't belong here."

Spent, he collapsed in the flooded cell. Three hours after the start of his one-man, one-cell rampage, he was coaxed out by a prison chaplain. Marion was escorted to an empty cell, where he whistled and shrieked into the block. No one could sleep. The next morning, a prison psychiatrist was called to assess the inmate. A man could lose it one night, but Marion Coakley's overall record was dreadful. From the day he shuffled his manacled feet into the prison system's reception center, Coakley showed "persistently negative adjustment" and had "performed less than satisfactorily in work placement." He refused to "accept staff direction," and showed "limited intelligence, little insight into his problems and current dilemma." He had been kept on antipsychotic medicine. The measure of its futility could be seen in the remains of Cell 20.

Less than twenty-four hours after Marion Coakley destroyed a very sturdy cell with his bare hands, the psychiatrist with the Department of Corrections concluded, unsurprisingly, that Marion Coakley remained an angry man. The Fishkill psychiatrist had the solution: Make him another prison's problem. "Psychiatrist recommended immediate placement in a more structured and secure environment," stated an evaluation written by the staff after the night of destruction. "Subject transferred at direction of the first deputy superintendent."

From the Audio Cassette edition.

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Interviews & Essays

Barry Scheck's interview with Publisher's Weekly (1/10/2000)

PW: In your new book, Actual Innocence, you and coauthors Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer describe numerous cases of people who have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. What do you hope to accomplish with this book?

Scheck: There's going to be a very unusual campaign around the book. We've organized Innocence Projects at universities all around the country. We're going to get the people in the community, in the journalism schools, etc., interested in this problem. We have an innocence agenda: a congressional bill that will be introduced sometime in February, hopefully, giving a right to everyone whose innocence can be proved to get the necessary [DNA] tests done.

PW: One of the more startling revelations in your book is the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Can you talk a little about that?

Scheck: Scholars have documented for a century now that mistaken eyewitness identification is the single greatest cause of the conviction of the innocent. There's been an enormous amount of research in psychology and the social sciences that has not yet translated into the law. That's why we recommend implementation of a recent Justice Department report on the subject.

PW: After reading the many cases you present of innocent people wrongfully convicted, isn't it easy to become disheartened about our system of justice?

Scheck: I think it's an optimistic book, because for every problem we identify, we also identify g simple reforms that anyone of good will, of any I political persuasion, can get behind, PW: While the book is about your and Peter I Neufeld's own experiences, it is written in the third person rather than the first. Why is that?

Scheck: This is not a book about us. We tried as much as possible to avoid the megalomania. We have a very important message. We don't want ego getting in the way.

PW: Do you have plans to write any other books, on your more famous cases, perhaps?

Scheck: I was offered a lot of money to write a book about that black football player in Los Angeles, and I refused. But some of the other cases—I'm not speaking of Louise Woodward, but the Amadou Diallo case in New York City and similar civil rights cases—will be worth- while to reexamine because there are important political and social issues involved.


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