Despite arguing that he was completely innocent, and despite the fact the prosecutors for the state had evidence to support his claim, Wyatt was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Wyatt was behind bars for nearly 31 years, making him the person serving the longest amount of time in prison in history in Texas before having his sentence vacated Jan. 4. With the help of attorney’s at New York’s Innocence Project, it was revealed that prosecutorial misconduct had taken place, and Wyatt was finally set free.
Wyatt had maintained his innocence for three decades, and had been trying to fight the system, but with no recourse. When the Innocence Project agreed to take his case in 2005 and began looking into the matter, this signaled a turning point. “What’s most troubling about this case is that from the moment of arrest Wyatt maintained his complete innocence, and the state had evidence in their file that supported his claim,” said Jason Kraeg, a staff attorney at the Innocence Project who worked on Wyatt’s case.
The Innocence Project maintains on its website,
We should learn from the system’s failures. In each case where DNA has proven innocence beyond doubt, an overlapping array of causes has emerged – from mistakes to misconduct to factors of race and class.”
The group identifies seven of the leading common causes of wrongful convictions including, bad lawyering, informants or snitches, government misconduct, false confessions, unvalidated or improper forensic science and eyewitness misidentification. Arguably several of these factors were at play in Wyatt’s original conviction.
The availability of DNA evidence has greatly assisted those in jail for crimes the didn’t commit to proving their innocence. More than 280 convicted prisoners have been exonerated on the basis of DNA testing alone since 1989 when the first DNA exoneration took place, and 70 percent of those were members of minority groups. Around 260 of those exonerated had pleaded guilty to a crime that they did not commit. “Eyewitness misidentification played a role in almost 75 percent of those cases, making it the leading contributing factor to wrongful conviction,” according to Jennifer Dysart, Associate Professor at the CUNY Jon Jay College of Criminal Justice in a YouTube video posted on The Innocence Project’s website. However, only 10 states have laws dealing with eyewitness identification.
While the pace of DNA exonerations has grown across the country in recent years, the Innocence Project maintains that so many wrongful convictions are evidence of disturbing fissures and trends in the US criminal justice system.
While 48 states do have laws on the books providing defendants access to DNA testing following conviction, many prosecutors fight testing, and judges will often apply narrow readings of the law to deny relief. Moreover, there are 18 states that do not have laws requiring that evidence be saved, so in states without such laws, evidence that could potentially yield DNA is in danger of being destroyed after a trial takes place.
Since 1973, 139 people in 26 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence., according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., and while experts say it’s difficult to collect data on how many people total throughout U.S. history have been exonerated after serving time for crimes they did not commit, University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross estimates there have been approximately 850 such cases since the 1980s. But there is no way of telling how many of the 1,278 who have been executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 were innocent because courts generally do not entertain claims of innocence when the defendant is dead.
For Wyatt, the newly discovered evidence was enough to get him out of prison, but it was not enough to support a claim of actual innocence, which would make him eligible for state compensation and exoneree benefits. Wyatt now begins the difficult task of rebuilding a life for himself.
“He’s missed 31 years of his life, so of course there are going to be some challenges,” Kraeg said. Even after they are exonerated, former inmates face a hurdle of problems to surmount – a future without a job, dealing with the emotional scars of their experience, no access to health care, no safety net and many other uncertainties.
Jerry Miller, who in 2007 became the 200th person in the US to be exonerated due to DNA evidence said,
“When you get out after 26 years charged with rape, its hard to get a job. Society failed me and then it failed me again.”
Only about half of those exonerated through DNA testing have been financially compensated, and most of those exonerees spent an average time of 13 years behind bars. Only twenty-seven states have passed laws to compensate people who were wrongfully incarcerated, as well as the federal government, and the District of Columbia. The award amount an exoneree receives under these statutes varies “tremendously” from state to state., according to Kreag.
Some don’t have a compensation package for exonerees at all, while some cap it at a very low dollar amount. The Innocence Project, which operates almost entirely upon donated services and individual contributions, also provides social workers to assist its clients after their release, as well as advocacy work on behalf of legal changes in state and federal laws. The group fields pleas for help from over 3,000 prisoners per year and responds to every request. Last year alone they assisted nearly 300 cases.
Experts say that there is no way of knowing how many innocent people are behind bars in the U.S today. If only one percent of the over 2 million Americans behind bars were innocent, that would mean 20,000 people are currently serving prison sentences for crimes that they did not commit. However, many studies suggest that the percentage of wrongfully convicted may be much higher. There are approximately 500 exonerees across the US today, according to the Life After Exoneration Program (LAEP), a national nonprofit which assists the wrongfully convicted to build a life after being released from prison.
Wyatt’s attorneys will now start work on the project of having him declared factually innocent, which will make him eligible for compensation under Texas law, and Wyatt may also choose to independently file a civil suit to be compensated, but for right now Krage says, “he’s still got a lot of hurdles”.
Feature photo | Ricky Dale Wyatt celebrates after learning his conviction has been overturned.