Guilty Until Proven Innocent

This article was first published in the Spring 2014 print edition of UConn Magazine. To read more stories like this, visit s.uconn.edu/spring 14 or download UConn Magazine’s free app for tablet devices.

Stephen Saloom ’90 (CLAS), ’96 JD speaks on behalf of the Innocence Project at a public forum on preventing wrongful convictions in New York State in 2008.

Stephen Saloom ’90 (CLAS), ’96 JD speaks on behalf of the Innocence Project at a public forum on preventing wrongful convictions in New York State in 2008.

 

The truth is not always what it seems. As senior policy advisor at the Innocence Project in New York City, UConn alum Stephen Saloom ’90 (CLAS), ’96 JD faces this reality on a daily basis. Here, he offers a closer look into his ongoing work to prevent wrongful convictions.

Imagine there has been a shocking murder in your neighborhood. The police question you and others. You tell them all you know, because you want to help them identify whoever did it.

You start to realize, however, that the police think you did it. You’re stunned and panicked all at once, trying to reassure yourself. Surely, they will see that they’re mistaken. Yet you are taken into a lineup. The witness identifies you as the perpetrator. You are questioned further, and the police think something you said, or the way you’ve acted, suggests your guilt.

You are arrested for a heinous crime – even though you are completely innocent.

News of your arrest spreads through your community like wildfire. Your face is plastered in the papers and on TV as the alleged murderer. You’re treated like a pariah, as is your family. You are incarcerated, with bail set at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It will cost tens of thousands of dollars more to prove your innocence – if you and your family can even scrape that money together. At trial, you present alibi evidence and point out the weaknesses in the case against you, but the jury doesn’t believe you. You are found guilty, deemed remorseless for not accepting guilt, and sent to prison for decades, if not life. Perhaps you’re even sentenced to death.

For far more people than we had ever before realized, this terrifying nightmare is reality. Having endured the horror of a false accusation and conviction, these individuals now face the daily torture of a life obliterated by wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the real perpetrator is free, typically going on to commit additional violent crimes.

For nearly a decade, my career has focused on identifying, preventing, and remedying wrongful convictions like this. I work for the Innocence Project, a legal organization that uses post-conviction DNA testing to prove the innocence of wrongfully convicted people. It is also a policy reform organization that uses the lessons learned from each of the nation’s DNA exonerations to understand what factors commonly mislead the criminal justice system into believing, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an innocent person is guilty of having committed a crime.

To date, 312 individuals nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing. By examining these cases, the Innocence Project has identified the leading factors that contribute to wrongful convictions, from eyewitness misidentification to invalid or improper forensic evidence. We then advocate for the adoption of solutions proven to minimize these problems.

As policy director, I led the organization’s efforts to work with police, legislators, judges, and other criminal justice policymakers across the nation to implement reforms that will help prevent wrongful convictions – and increase the likelihood that the real perpetrators of crime will be found.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
While I find policy work satisfying, it can, at times, feel theoretical. It’s not often that I get to see for myself how the reforms we enact actually impact individuals. In one of my most cherished policy experiences, however, I helped a family clear the name of their son, Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been wrongfully accused, convicted, and executed.

Convicted in 1992 for setting the fire that killed his three young daughters, Willingham was executed in 2004 in Texas. Yet his arson/murder conviction rested almost wholly on forms of arson evidence that had long been discredited as “folklore” by fire scientists.

Tragic in his case was the fact that, at the time of Willingham’s trial, no one knew what fire science had since established: Markings such as spidered glass at the fire scene did not indicate a fire had been intentionally set, but simply that the fire had been intensely hot. As one of the world’s most respected fire scientists, Gerald Hurst, issued in a sworn affidavit prior to Willingham’s execution, “There’s nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire … It was just a fire.”

Willingham was executed nonetheless. But his mother and cousin never stopped seeking to clear his name, to let the world know that he did not kill the daughters he so dearly loved.

Challenging the forensic evidence central to Willingham’s conviction and execution, the Innocence Project and Willingham’s family filed an allegation with the Texas Forensic Science Commission, claiming that Willingham’s arson/murder conviction was based on arson myths that had been scientifically disproven. The Commission is not a court. Its members are primarily scientists, and its mission is to provide an independent assessment of allegations of problems with forensic evidence in Texas.

Five years later, the Commission finally completed its investigation, declaring it “untenable” that the State Fire Marshal could stand by its original findings of arson, in light of scientific advances. Almost two decades after his family members sought to prove Willingham had not set the fire, the Commission report was a true victory in clearing his name.

The Commission’s findings also clarified for criminal justice systems nationwide that such arson evidence – in cases past, present, and future – should be regarded as unreliable. As a result, the Texas Fire Marshal is specifically addressing these problems in past and present Texas arson cases, and new life has been given to exoneration proceedings in similar questionable arson cases across the country.

For me, cases like this will forever serve as a living reminder that policy reform is never simply a theoretical endeavor. It can in fact have priceless meaning for real people, in matters of life and death – and even beyond.

Learn more about the Innocence Project at innocenceproject.org.