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Jail term doesn't prove guilt

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POSTED: May 22, 2007 5:02 a.m.
In my darker dreams, I picture being handcuffed and stuffed into the back of a police car, while yelling, “It wasn’t me. It was the one-armed man!
But my murky visions of being falsely accused and imprisoned have become an eerie reality for many people, even more than you might think.
In last week’s “USA Today,” a headline exclaimed the 200th exoneration of a falsely accused defendant who had spent years behind bars.
The Innocence Project helped free its first defendant 18 years ago, it freed its 100th in 2002 and, in just the past five years, its exoneration tally has doubled.
Many of us regard false imprisonment as a generally absurd or wildly fictitious story, which can only be told in films like “The Shawshank Redemption” or “The Fugitive.”
Ironically though, this mixture of truth and fiction hits close to home for me, literally.  
Decades ago, my Grand Papa Ed worked as a detective for the Westlake Police Department in a town near Cleveland, Ohio.
One morning, he and many other detectives and policemen were called to the house of a wealthy doctor named Sam Shepherd. Shepherd’s wife had been murdered. There were no signs of forced entry and my Papa Ed (along with practically everyone else) thought the killer had to be the husband. He was convicted of murder, and spent 10 years in jail before a cunning attorney named F. Lee Bailey proved the culprit was a actually a window washer who worked on the Shepherd’s estate.
In light of this fantastically true story, the television show “The Fugitive” was created from the case, and, as they say, the rest is history.
How many hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been churned through the system and spit into the slammer? I know our legal system isn’t flawless, but could it be this faulty?
According to the Innocent Project, a total of six people who had supposedly committed crimes in Georgia have been freed.  
Could I be the next to rattle a rusty tin can across my cage?  Could you? Of course it’s improbable, but the likelihood is evidently greater than we think.
The Innocence Project sites seven main causes for these mistakes including witness misidentification, unreliable or limited science, false confessions, forensic science misconduct, government misconduct, incorrect informants or snitches and the poor defense of defendants.
Robert Clark, a Georgian who was arrested for kidnapping, rape and armed robbery in 1982, was freed 23 years later with the help of DNA identification, which has become a prevalent factor in deciding someone’s innocence or guilt.
Along these lines, programs have been initiated across the country where DNA is collected among the inmates, and their samples are tested against the samples involved in unsolved cases, or in the appeal cases of convicted men or women.
I know a majority of the people in our prison system are guilty, but the next time someone wails of his or her innocence, perhaps we should raise an eyebrow and listen to their story.
 

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