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Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted

Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted

by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, Jim Dwyer

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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.


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.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Post
You will not soon read a more frightening book.
William Bernhardt
This may be the most important book on Amer-ican criminal justice in a decade.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Should be required reading.
Jonathan Harr
[A] hair-raising account of how fatally wrong things can go inside the American criminal justice system.
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
Here, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Dwyer helps Scheck and Peter Neufeld, two high-profile criminal defense attorneys with a flair for handling notorious and groundbreaking cases, chronicle their Innocence Project, which tracks the fate of 64 people documented as having been sent to death row for crimes they did not commit. The book is selective, chronicling only ten inmates in any great detail. The innocents were liberated from prison by advances in DNA testing and other procedures that have come about in the last 15 years. (Only two states currently allow for submission to the judiciary of DNA evidence after conviction.) The new DNA technology has also provided legal scholars with a rare opportunity to expose fissures in the legal foundation. As such, this new work constitutes an appropriate sequel to Edward Borchard's classic 1932 text, Convicting the Innocent. Both analyses highlight nearly the same causes of wrongful conviction. Highly recommended for legal collections, academic libraries, and any library that has Borchard's seminal work. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/99.]--Philip Young Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Lib. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
-- Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter College, New York
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

Product Details

Doubleday Publishing
Publication date:
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6.46(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.14(d)

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."

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

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