Actual Innocence

Actual Innocence

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Extraordinarily powerful stories of ordinary people locked up for crimes they did not commit, and how they were freed against great odds.

A nightmare from a thousand B-movies: a horrible crime is committed in your neighborhood, and the police knock at your door. A witness swears you are the perpetrator; you have no alibi, and no one believes your protestations of innocence. You're convicted, sentenced to hard time in maximum security, or even death row, where you await the executioner's needle.

Tragically, this is no movie script but reality for hundreds of American citizens. Our criminal justice system is broken, and people from all walks of life have been destroyed by its failures. But science and a group of incredibly dedicated crusaders are working to repair the damage.

In the last ten years, DNA testing has uncovered stone-cold proof that sixty-five completely innocent people have been sent to prison and death row. But even in cases where there is physical evidence, the criminal justice system frees prisoners only after a torturous legal process. Incredibly, according to many trial judges, "actual innocence" is not grounds for release from prison.

At the Innocence Project, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld have helped to free thirty-seven wrongly convicted people, and have taken up the cause of hundreds more. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Dwyer has been covering innocence cases for a decade. In Actual Innocence, Scheck, Neufeld, and Dwyer relate the harrowing stories of ten innocent men—convicted by sloppy police work, corrupt prosecutors, jailhouse snitches, mistaken eyewitnesses, and other all-too-common flaws of the trial system—and tell of the heroic efforts to free them.

Intense, startling, and utterly compelling, Actual Innocence is a passionate and fascinating journey through the looking glass of the American criminal justice system.

Tragically, this is no movie script but reality for hundreds of American citizens. Our criminal justice system is broken, and people from all walks of life have been destroyed by its failures. But science and a group of incredibly dedicated lawyers are working to repair the damage.

In the last decade of this century, DNA testing has uncovered stone-cold proof that fifty-five completely innocent people were sent to prison and death row. At the Innocence Project, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld have managed to free forty-three wrongly convicted people and have taken up the cause of two hundred more. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Jim Dwyer covered this courthouse revolution from its very first days. In Actual Innocence, Scheck, Neufeld, and Dwyer relate the harrowing stories of ten of these individuals—convicted by sloppy police work, corrupt prosecutors, jailhouse snitches, mistaken witnesses, inept lawyers, and other all-too-common flaws in the trial system—and tell of the heroic efforts to free them.

Intense, harrowing, and compelling, Actual Innocence is a passionate argument for sanity in our courtrooms and a fascinating journey through the looking glass of the American criminal justice system. —>

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451203656
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/28/2001
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 4.30(w) x 6.72(h) x 1.19(d)

About 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.

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, Corrections Officer 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."

What People are Saying About This

Philip Friedman

ACTUAL INNOCENCE is a remarkably compelling book. Using real-life stories more horrifyingly gripping than any fiction, the authors make clear the deep flaws in our criminal justice system, and the positive difference that is being made by DNA identification methods.
— Philip Friedman, author of No Higher Law


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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Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make it Right 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.