Father Patrick McCarthy was one such dedicated Josephite priest. He worked as the Pastor of an urban New Orleans church, tending to the needs of a predominantly African American parish. To this day, I often think of and am disturbed by Father McCarthy’s death…
Upon arriving, we observed the late Father McCarthy’s stolen Chevy Blazer parked in a covered parking area. The apartment where Marcus was thought to be staying was an end unit. There was construction taking place in the immediate area, so Phil Stukes donned my Southwestern Bell telephone company hardhat and went to the door of the apartment with a clipboard and pen in hand while Andy Tully and I hid just around the corner from the door with our backs up against the brick sidewall. Marcus Hamilton opened the door, Phil greeted Hamilton, and I spun around the corner and pointed my pistol in Hamilton’s face. He did not resist.
As I prepared the documents inherent to her arrest, the little old lady just sat across from me, swaying back and forth, patiently waiting to blow into the Breathalyzer. However, after a few minutes, her rocking motion ceased, and she leaned forward, across the table, and stared at my chest. I wasn’t exactly sure what she was looking at until she said, “Cromwell…are you related to the undertaker in Hopewell?” She had noticed my nametag. I said, “Yes, John Cromwell is my father’s cousin.”
The sweet old lady then began, “Oh, he is such a nice man. A few years ago, he buried my husband, and he couldn’t have been nicer to me.” She got a bit more animated and a bit louder, stating, “But I’ve known John Cromwell since he was a little boy, and you can ask anyone in Hopewell, and they’ll tell you what a nice man John Cromwell is!”
I thought for a moment what a sweet little old drunk lady she was. Then, after hesitating just a moment, she added, “You know, I just can’t believe he’s related to a son-of-a-bitch like you!” I had to laugh out loud and she joined me.
The National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School, maintains an ongoing count of those exonerated since 1989. When I say exonerated, I’m referring to individuals who were convicted of a crime they did not commit and were imprisoned. In other words, these are not “technically innocent” people freed because of some mistake in the trial or investigation. These are actual innocent people, people convicted of a crime they did not commit. The exoneration freed them from their prison cell. As of the beginning of February 2016, one thousand, seven hundred, and thirty-three (1,733) exonerations were listed. (www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration)
(I say “the exoneration freed them from their prison cell.” That’s usually true. One exoneration in Florida doesn’t fit that description. Frank Lee Smith was convicted of Murder and Rape in 1986. He spent 14 years on Death Row, before dying of cancer. Six months after his death, DNA testing proved Frank Lee Smith was innocent and identified the actual Murderer and Rapist.)
The list of exonerations is not all-inclusive and relies on voluntary reporting by attorneys and other interested parties. Therefore, it’s a reasonable assumption that the actual number of exonerations is higher.
Of the 1,733 exonerated, 689 are Caucasian, 807 are Black, and 200 are Hispanic.
Per the registry’s review of exonerations, 424 innocent people were sentenced to life or life without parole. Other sentences include 90, 95, and 99 years. One innocent person was sentenced to 100 years. One was sentenced to 148 years. One was sentenced to 172 years. And 116 were sentenced to death. Makes you wonder how many innocent people have been executed, doesn’t it? There’s probably no way we will ever know, but I’m sure it’s happened more times than most of us care to think about.
So, does anyone know a good approximation of how many innocent people have been sent to jail? I have spoken to criminal justice experts from all over the country, and no one can say for sure. Some believe it could be as much as two and a half percent of convicts are innocent. Some say it’s likely less than a half of one percent. An official at the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the U.S. Department of Justice told me that they have not conducted research to attempt to determine how many innocent people might be in jail and have no plans to do so. They directed me to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) where I found that research had been conducted on what causes the wrongful conviction of innocent people, but the NIJ has no estimate of the percentage or number of innocent people likely in jail or prison.
In the April 2014 landmark study “Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who Are Sentenced to Death,”… the authors conclude, “The rate of erroneous conviction of innocent criminal defendants is often described as not merely unknown but unknowable. We use survival analysis to model this effect, and estimate that if all death-sentenced defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely at least 4.1% would be exonerated. We conclude that this is a conservative estimate of the proportion of false convictions among death sentences in the United States.” (www.pnas.org) (Author’s note: That is one study, when applied to our nation’s prison population, that points to the potential of thousands of innocent people in jail.)