Waiting on the System: Prime Years Lost Behind Bars
Written by Jana French, Video Editing by Connor Pannell
Over 2 million people were incarcerated in 2014, but not all of these people are guilty of the crimes that landed them there. Furthermore, not all of these people entered the system as adults. When the situation consists of a young person being incarcerated for a crime they did not commit, that person may spend years behind bars waiting to prove their innocence. And even if they can convince an appellate court of their innocence, even if their charges are dropped and they are set free, they still suffer from the incarceration. These people find themselves in a country that convicted them of a crime, trying to acclimate to society without job experience or the benefits of a higher education.
This situation is the premise of the Peabody Award winning series Rectify. It dramatizes the story of Daniel Holden, a man convicted of the murder of his then-girlfriend Hanna Dean in Paulie, a fictional small town in Georgia. However, DNA evidence emerges, making it unclear whether or not Daniel actually committed the murder. The series opens with Daniel’s release from jail after 19 years on death row. At first, he speaks slowly and quietly, and doesn’t have much to say. Tensions arise as he meets new family members from his mother’s remarriage. Daniel wonders why he needs a cell phone. Meanwhile, the town is on-edge, and citizens avoid all of Daniel’s family members in public. A constant threat exists that Daniel will be brought to trial again and put back in prison. Rectify shows that simply because a person is free from jail does not mean they are free to live a normal life — the stigma of being incarcerated and the public’s questions of innocence continue to haunt people long after they have returned home.
Daniel’s fictional experience is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. The 1996 Peabody winner Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills explores the trial of The West Memphis Three — teenagers who were convicted of “sacrificing” three eight-year-old boys in 1993. Despite an apparent lack of evidence, one of the men was placed on death row and the other two were serving life sentences. A second film was released in 2000, causing national uproar over the obvious mistrial, and the culminating piece in the trilogy, released in 2011, explores the emergence of DNA evidence in the case that shows the boys as innocent. Following this documentary, the three were released from prison after 18 years behind bars and are now in their late 30’s.
Sometimes investigators use how young a suspect is to manipulate their thinking. The Interrogation of Michael Crowe, a 2002 winner, shows just that. A 14-year-old boy confesses to murdering his 12-year-old sister after being interrogated without a lawyer present for long periods of time. Because Michael was so young, he was unable to realize that what the investigators were doing was wrong. He couldn’t fully comprehend that telling the police what he thought they wanted to hear wasn’t going to stop everything; it was only going to bring him more trouble. Fortunately, Michael only spent seven months in jail before his attorney convinced the judges to take a second look at his confession. It was ruled that the confession was coerced, and the actual murderer was apprehended. However, Michael will carry his time in jail with him for the rest of his life.
The Central Park Five exhibits more young adults being intimidated into confessing to a crime they did not commit. Five boys, four black and one hispanic, were initially arrested for assaulting people in Central Park on April 19, 1989, but they soon became the main suspects in the rape, assault and sodomy of a woman who was jogging through the park that night. Police separated the boys and told them they wouldn’t be able to leave until they told police about what happened to the jogger, Trisha Ellen Meili. Though they didn’t even remember seeing her in the park, the police made each one think that the other boys had given accounts of what all five of them did to Meili. They all ended up spinning a web of stories surrounding that night while still maintaining they were innocent, and that web of confessions then led to their conviction for the crimes. It wasn’t until Matias Reyes confessed to the crime in 2001 that the five men would finally prove they were innocent. They sued the state of New York in 2003 for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress. The case has yet to be settled.
A simple thing these Peabody honorees all have in common is that it took someone removed from the case to ask the public to take a closer look. Serial, the podcast that has taken the world by storm, did just that by covering Adnan Syed’s conviction of the murder of his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Host Sarah Koenig retraced Syed’s steps the day of the murder, dissected the lawyers’ arguments during the trial and dug into whether or not there was really a pay phone outside of the Best Buy to figure out for herself if Syed was really guilty. While Koenig said she doesn’t feel comfortable drawing a conclusion on if he was guilty or not, she does brings attention to errors in his trial. As a result, it was announced in November of 2015 that Syed was granted a hearing so his lawyers could present the evidence that Koenig explored within Serial: Season One. The current season is now doing something similar with Bowe Bergdhal’s army desertion trial.
No one should be punished for a crime they did not commit, especially when the punishment causes the person to loose a significant amount of time in their lives while they wait for their innocence to be recognized. Over the years, Peabody has recognized stories of young men who missed their high school prom, the birth of their children and the death of parents to time behind bars, only to later be recognized as innocent. These programs depict how these people try to recreate their lives in a world where they can’t drop the stigma of having been incarcerated, and how, even though they are now free, they are still viewed as criminals by some members of society. Rectify may be fiction, but the issues it dramatizes are the lived experience of far too many members of our society.