It seems that all anybody can talk about right now is Making a Murderer, and for good reason, as it is an astonishing and shocking documentary series. Wherever you stand on Teresa Halbach’s murder, there is no denying that Steven Avery spent 18 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit (although some in Manitowoc County would still argue against this). It was not until improvements in DNA testing emerged that he was finally exonerated for that first crime. He is now the most famous case of wrongful imprisonment, but here are just a few other people who have wrongfully faced hard time behind bars.
10. Joseph Burrows (6 Years)
In 1988, William E. Dulan was murdered at his home in Iroquois County, Illinois. Gayle Potter’s blood was found at the scene, and in a plea bargain, she admitted taking part but also implicated Joseph Burrows (who she claimed shot him) and Ralph Frye (a friend of Burrows with cognitive disabilities). No DNA implicated Burrows or Frye, and four witnesses placed Burrows 60 miles from the crime. Despite this, Burrows was sentenced to death and Potter and Frye faced lengthy prison terms. Frye later recanted his testimony against Burrows and claimed he was coerced by police. In a post-conviction hearing, Burrows’ lawyer amazingly persuaded Potter to confess the murder. After a new trial, charges were dropped and Burrows was released in 1994. This lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, recently announced she was taking on the defense in the Steven Avery case. She has earned the exoneration of 17 men in wrongful conviction cases.
9. The Central Park Five (5 to 15 Years)
On April 19th, 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meili was beaten and raped in Central Park with several others also attacked. Five juveniles between the age of 14 and 16 were tried and convicted, with sentences ranging from five to 15 years. All five confessed to attacks and implicated each other, although none admitted to the crime involving Meili but confessed to being an accomplice. They soon retracted their statements and claimed that they had been intimidated, lied to and coerced into false confessions. No DNA implicated them, meaning that the prosecution relied entirely on these confessions. In 2002, Matias Reyes admitted to the crime and stated that he did it alone, and DNA evidence confirmed his involvement. He was serving a life sentence as a serial rapist and murderer. The convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated in 2002, and they went on to sue the city of New York for $41 million in 2014.
8. The West Memphis Three (18 Years)
Another very high profile case and subject of another astonishing documentary, the West Memphis Three are three teenagers who were tried and convicted in 1994 for the murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Jessie Misskelley (17) and Jason Baldwin (16) were sentenced to life imprisonment, whilst Damien Echols (18) was on death row. Although no DNA was found at the scene of the crime, Misskelley at one point confessed to the crime and implicated his co-defendants. However, he was questioned alone for 12 hours and had a reported IQ of 72 (sound familiar?). Two documentaries, West of Memphis and the Paradise Lost trilogy, plus a celebrity-backed campaign brought attention to the case, and in 2011 they were exonerated thanks to new DNA evidence. They were released on a controversial Alford plea with 10-year suspended sentences, having spent 18 years and 78 days in jail.
7. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (18 Years)
Another famous example of somebody doing hard time for a crime they didn’t commit is former American boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was arrested with his friend John Artis in 1966 for a triple homicide at a bar and grill in New Jersey. After initially being cleared when a survivor did not identify him as the gunman, a new trial saw two eyewitnesses claim that they both did it, which led to their arrests. Despite alibis, both men were convicted. It was later shockingly revealed that these two eyewitnesses were petty criminals who received reduced sentences in exchange for their testimonies, and a new trial began. The jury again found the men guilty, but Artis was paroled in 1981. Carter’s attorney filed a petition for a writ habeas corpus, and he was freed without bail in 1985 at 48 years old. Prosecutors chose not to try the case for a third time.
6. Darryl Hunt (19.5 Years)
Just a year after Steven Avery was exonerated, the Innocence Project got another massive victory with the exoneration of Darryl Hunt, who wrongfully served 19.5 years of a life sentence. He was convicted of the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes in 1984, despite there being no physical evidence. However, a hotel employee (falsely) claimed to see Hunt enter a hotel bathroom and exit leaving bloody towels behind, plus other witnesses placed him near the scene. In 1994, he was cleared of sexual assault due to DNA testing, which put the murder charge in question. Almost a decade later, Willard E. Brown admitted to the entire crime after DNA testing had linked him. This confession led to Hunt’s eventual release, and he went on to form a group similar to the Innocence Project which aims to educate the public about flaws in the criminal justice system.
5. Lathierial Boyd (23 Years)
Kathleen Zellner developed quite the reputation following the exoneration of Joseph Burrows and several other innocent men, and this includes Lathierial Boyd. On February 4th, 1990, two shootings occurred outside a Chicago club, and at the time Boyd was over 20 miles away from the scene. Boyd alleged that he was framed by the police, and that they forced witnesses to implicate him. Boyd was listed as a suspect, and volunteered for a line-up despite not matching the witness’s description, being 50 pounds heavier, several inches taller and having no facial hair. Despite these facts (and his alibi), Boyd was sentenced to 82 years. His case received worldwide recognition when the detective he blamed for his conviction, Richard Zuley, was found to use interrogation techniques characterized as torture when he was an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay. In 2013, his conviction was vacated based on evidence of his innocence.
4. Glenn Ford (30 years)
Glenn Ford wrongfully spent 30 years on death row, and tragically he died just a year after being freed in 2014. In 1984, he was sentenced to death for the murder of Isadore Rozeman, a jeweler who was robbed and killed in his shop. Ford was assigned two attorneys by the state, with the lead attorney being an oil and gas lawyer who had never tried a case, whilst the other worked only on slip and fall cases. In 2000, a hearing was ordered after Ford claimed that the prosecution suppressed evidence that showed that Jake and Henry Robinson were responsible for the crime. Thirteen years later, an unidentified informant told prosecutors that Jake Robinson admitted to the crime. Ford’s legal team filed a motion to vacate his conviction and he walked free in 2014. He is the longest-serving death row inmate to be fully exonerated before his death.
3. Lewis Fogle (34 years)
In 1982, Lewis Fogle was convicted of the rape and murder of 15-year-old Deann Katherine Long of Pennsylvania. Fogle was one of four people arrested (including his brother), but he was the only one to be tried. There was no DNA evidence, and the prosecution’s case relied on three inmates who claimed to have heard Fogle admit to the crime. He was sentenced to life in jail without parole after being convicted of second-degree murder, but maintained his innocence. The Innocence Project (who also helped Steven Avery) examined his case, and they were able to obtain and test the semen found on the victim’s body. The DNA did not match that of Fogle’s and he was released from jail. Fogle was released in August 2015 at the age of 63, after 34 years in jail.
2. Joseph Sledge (36 years)
On September 5th, 1976, 34-year-old Joseph Sledge escaped from a minimum security prison where he was serving a four year sentence for misdemeanor larceny. The following day, two women were found dead from multiple stab wounds in Elizabeth, North Carolina. Sledge was spotted nearby driving a stolen car, and was arrested and brought in for questioning the next day before being sent back to prison. Sledge stated he escaped due to beatings and a fear for his life. In February 1978, he was charged after two inmates claimed that he had confessed in prison. He received back-to-back life sentences. In 2012, pubic hair evidence was tested and did not match Sledge. The following year, one of the inmates recanted his story and stated that they had received special treatment and a share of the reward. Sledge was exonerated in 2015 after serving over 36 years.
1. Ricky Jackson & Wiley Bridgeman (39 years)
Held in jail longer than any other innocent prisoners, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman spent a staggering 39 years incarcerated despite their innocence. In May 1975, Harold Franks was murdered and Jackson and Bridgeman were arrested for the crime in Cleveland, Ohio, and sentenced to death. The case was built on the testimony of 12-year-old Eddie Vernon as there were no other witnesses or evidence, and he claimed that he saw the murder take place. However, as it turned out, Vernon was actually on a school bus over a block away from the crime scene at the time. In 2014, Vernon recanted his testimony in a signed affidavit and stated that he was coerced by police into testifying. They were released, and forgave Vernon as he was just a boy at the time. Bridgeman’s sentence had been commuted to life, whilst Jackson’s was commuted in 1977 due to a paperwork error.