Actual Innocenceby Barry Scheck, Jim Dwyer, Peter Neufeld, Michael Boatman
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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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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 grabpaper, pillowcases, clotheshe 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.
What People are saying about this
Philip Friedman, author of No Higher Law
Meet the Author
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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I was fortunate to have met Peter Neufeld so I had the opportunity to personally laud him for his efforts to free the innocent and uncover the corruption that occurs in our court system. Especially in a society where the accused are considered guilty until proven innocent. Actual Innocence is a must-read. It is so engaging that it is the type of novel that can be read in one sitting. It gives you a glimpse into the misconduct that infiltrates the fabric of our justice system. I definitely recommend it!
I read this book after a recommendation by one of my professors. The True Stories within each chapter are engrossing, horrific, and very saddening. It is very troubling to think many innocent people are in jail serving time for crimes they did not commit, when the really predators are still roaming the streets. This book definitely opened my eyes. The opinions I once held about our Criminal Justice System will be forever changed.