February 22 Reynaldo Munoz became the 3,000th incarcerated person whose U.S. criminal conviction was overturned after it was determined he had been falsely convicted. That’s 3,000 known miscarriages of justice since the National Exemption Registry began tracking them in 1989. It’s a staggering number, but the true total is undoubtedly much higher.
The register reports that these 3,000 falsely convicted men and women spent a total of more than 25,000 years behind bars.
Research suggests that approximately 2% of those currently incarcerated are in fact innocent.
Most of these cases, and the names of the people who suffered such horrific injustices, are unknown to the American people. We don’t know their stories or the systemic issues responsible for what happened to them. This anonymity is understandable given how commonplace exonerations have become – and how difficult it can be to unearth the true stories of people locked up behind bars.
Breaking this anonymity and ignorance is essential if we are ever to face and deal with this national scandal. A few people have undertaken this important work. They try to turn statistics into stories. Their work makes the human consequences of the mistakes and injustices of the law real for the rest of us.
Munoz’s case was unusual because he was covered by USA Today. But it only made headlines due to chance and the surprising significance that it was the 3,000and exempt. We have to ask about the fate of so many more, but Munoz’s story can still serve as a case study in how criminal justice can go wrong.
His nightmarish saga began when he was arrested in Chicago in 1985. He was 16 at the time. Granted, Munoz had his flaws as a young man, and at the time of his arrest he was a member of an infamous gang, the “Insane Unknowns”.
Munoz was accused of shooting two young men, one of whom died of his wounds. While in police custody, Munoz was subjected to hours of grueling interrogation and was reportedly beaten by Reynaldo Guevaraa detective known for his desire to eliminate crime, no matter – Apparently — whether the person he incriminated was actually guilty.
Even that didn’t elicit a confession. Eventually, Munoz was placed in a queue and identified as the shooter by the surviving victim. He was convicted of murder and attempted murder and served 30 years of a 60-year sentence before being released on parole.
Munoz, who has insisted throughout his ordeal on his innocence, has found a lawyer willing to continue the post-conviction review of his case. This review revealed police misconduct, including the concealment of potentially exculpatory evidence found in police reports. This evidence was never shared with Munoz’s first defense attorneys.
The judge who heard this newly discovered evidence overturned Munoz’s conviction and said: “If even a fraction of the allegations included in this new evidence had been presented at trial…Munoz probably would have [have] been acquitted”. The prosecutor later dismissed the charges against Munoz, nearly 37 years after his arrest.
The Munoz case involved many typical elements of wrongful conviction cases, from faulty queue identification to reckless policing and withholding of evidence. The result was a miscarriage of justice.
A study found that 28 percent of all exonerations resulted from “eyewitness misidentification” of the guy who helped send Munoz to prison. He noted that “lineups and photo sets can be suggestive and cause a witness to choose the wrong person.”
A shocking 54% of false conviction cases involved misconduct on the part of the police or the prosecution.
But the public is generally unaware of these facts — or the extent of the miscarriages of justice they lead to — because wrongful convictions receive little or no attention, even when they result in an exoneration. Nothing about those released since Munoz’s release has caught the attention of the press or media. Each was just another name in a long line of people whose lives have been turned upside down by a false belief.
Much of the work currently being done to shed light on miscarriages of justice in this country is made by podcasts rather than by traditional journalists. While there are plenty of true-crime podcasts out there—the kind spoofed on the Hulu series”Only murders in the building“- only a few have managed to use lengthy interviews and surveys to help people who shouldn’t be behind bars.
To understand the role of podcasts in this work, I spoke to Maggie Freleng, one of this country’s most successful podcasters, who is starting a new podcast, “Wrongful Conviction with Maggie Freleng.” She doesn’t need the concert. She already has succeeded with the “Murder in alliance” and “Unfair and unresolvedpodcasts and was named an “NPR Next Generation Radio Fellow” and counted in the Ford Foundation’s “50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism.”
Freleng told me she was doing her new podcast to deal with the fact that most people know so little about miscarriages of justice. As she said, there is “so much to do” to help Americans come to terms with the injustices committed in our name. Hers, she said, is a “social justice project.” Freleng argues that podcasts do the job of “humanizing” people in prison and giving listeners “a reason to care.”
Shedding light on wrongful convictions, she argues, requires digging deep and addressing the systemic issues that lead to the thousands of mistakes our criminal justice system makes every year. Podcasts, Freleng says, help break through the “everyone behind bars pretends to be innocent” cynicism that surrounds popular discourse on wrongful convictions.
Podcasts offer listeners the opportunity to hear the various interviewees for themselves – and like court testimony, listeners hear not just what is said, but how it is said.
But podcasts do more than just tell stories of miscarriages of justice. They are, Freleng says, a call to action, a rallying cry for Americans to demand change for those whose stories they tell — and in the system responsible for the more than 3,000 people America has unjustly sent in prison and now released.
Wrongful conviction podcasts remind us, like Nelson Mandela once notedthat “as long as injustice … persists in our world, none of us can truly rest”.
Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The opinions expressed here do not represent Amherst College.