Lending Your Voice: Standing up for the Wrongly Convicted
- June 25
- by ServeNow Staff
On July 17, 1982, a black man on a bicycle approached a young woman. The man, who the woman described as a “total stranger,” brutally attacked her and bragged during the assault that he “had a white girl.” Time would tell that these words would unwittingly determine the fate of another uninvolved black man.
When he was only 18, Marvin Anderson, the only black man the police knew to be with a white woman, was convicted of robbery, sodomy, abduction, and rape after being identified in a photo lineup where his was the only color photo. Even though the real perpetrator came forward and confessed to the crime a few years later, Anderson still spent the next 20 years paying for these crimes as an innocent man.
What’s scariest about Anderson’s case, riddled with eyewitness misidentification and government misconduct, is that it is far from unique. The overflowing prison system includes thousands upon thousands of guiltless men and women who have been wrongfully convicted while the real perpetrators walk free.
As a private investigator, there are a lot of options when it comes to how you use your skills since there are numerous kinds of investigation. An extremely important but less celebrated type of investigation is criminal defense investigation and specifically aiding in wrongful conviction cases like Anderson’s. Private investigators have the knowledge and tools at their disposal to help those who have been wrongly imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. This article takes a look at the impact of wrongful convictions, why they are a cause worth pursuing, and what you can do to help victims as a private investigator.
The Impact and Relevance of Wrongful Convictions
It is impossible to say for sure just how many people are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. According to studies done by the Innocence Project, an estimated 2.3% to 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent. To put this into perspective, if only 1% were innocent that would mean more than 20,000 innocent people would be in prison. And only a small number are actually exonerated. The National Registry of Exonerations, which has collected detailed information about every U.S. exoneration since 1989, has documented only 2,372 exonerations total. And sometimes, the cost is higher than spending a large amount of time in confinement. Time Magazine reported that out of 100 prisoners sentenced to death, four are innocent but only two receive exoneration.
These numbers also show a clear racial disparity. Black men are more likely to be wrongly convicted, spend more time in prison, and, once exonerated, receive less compensation than their white counterparts. To be exact, a black person in America is seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and three times more likely to be wrongly convicted of sexual assault than a white person. Such racism is clearly shown in cases like Anderson’s, where he was a suspect simply because he was in a relationship with a white woman.
From their very first interaction with the police, to being arrested, booked, charged, convicted, and sentenced, black people are discriminated against and disproportionately criminalized at every stage of the criminal justice system.” - Alicia Maule for the Innocence Project
The Investigator’s Perspective
These numbers are overwhelming, but private investigators have the potential to be a source of hope for those bearing the weight of this injustice. Investigators have already proven themselves to be vital to the exoneration process. Two such investigators are Scott Lewis and Bob Rahn, who shared their unique perspectives on this tough but rewarding type of investigation.
For Scott Lewis, an investigative journalist turned private investigator, a wrongful conviction case that ended up freeing two innocent men “opened up a whole new world” for his investigative career. In this case, police arrested two men for killing a 35-year-old mother in her car. The evidence was thin and, with the help of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, Lewis discovered that no one spoke with the woman’s son, who was in the backseat during his mother’s murder. This new witness evidence aided the two men’s exoneration and marked the beginning of Lewis’s passion for helping the wrongfully convicted.
New witnesses are often the strongest evidence an investigation team can uncover in a wrongful conviction case. According to Bob Rahn, whose team, Management Resources of NY, has successfully solved four of these cases, “When you’re out there looking for the known witnesses, you almost always find unknown witnesses and that’s one of our biggest assets.” Though, Rahn acknowledges, witness evidence also comes with its own set of challenges, especially since many wrongful conviction cases are also cold cases. Witnesses can easily and understandably misremember details of the crime or can disappear off the map entirely, having moved or passed away since the original case took place. There is also the added issue of witnesses who refuse to talk due to fear of police retaliation. And these are only some of the hurdles investigators may face while handling exoneration cases.
Lewis has handled enough wrongful conviction cases to know that this work isn’t typically glamorous or simple. A lot of what he does involves poring over case files and determining whether there’s anything he can do to get them back to court. This involves acting on research the convicts themselves have already done, making Lewis’ job to accomplish what the prisoners can’t by themselves like obtaining court transcripts, homicide files, and talking to witnesses.
Rahn describes a similar process of sifting through court documents like police reports, trial transcripts, and post-trial appeals or motions. In order to properly investigate a case, his team has to “understand the case just as good if not better than the defendant.” This often includes an intense preliminary investigation that, in itself, sometimes requires looking through stacks and stacks of documents.
The biggest factor for Lewis is often less of finding a smoking gun and more of proving to the court that misconduct violations impacted a convict’s constitutional rights. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether he believes they’re actually innocent or not. What’s important for him is ensuring justice for irresponsibly handed cases by the justice system.
In both investigator’s experiences, police corruption and false eyewitness testimony have created a faulty system rife with wrongful convictions. Once convicted, the fight for a person’s innocence becomes extremely difficult. According to Lewis, change needs to happen on the front end. Better representation, good investigators, and quality front end work will make the most difference. More expert input about the unreliability of certain types of evidence, like eyewitness testimony, will also help people navigate the broken system.
For Rahn, the unwillingness of police and prosecutors to cooperate and turn over records can be a large barrier to getting the evidence he needs in a case. He believes the pressure on police to solve crimes and the system in place to rate success based on the number of convictions have lead to a higher number of false accusations. There is also an imbalance once a case goes to court. While prosecutors have unlimited funds to pull from, the defense doesn’t share those resources, creating a clear disadvantage. But, according to Rahn, a good investigator can help to “even the odds.”
For other private investigators interested in taking on these kinds of cases, the first step Lewis suggests is finding and volunteering for an innocence clinic in your area. It doesn’t matter if you only have a small amount of time or money to dedicate, every small action helps in big ways. These clinics are often made up of devoted paralegals, attorneys, and investigators, and it takes the whole team to get the job done. Use the Innocence Network or the American Association of Law Libraries database to find a clinic or innocence project near you.
It’s not easy work, though. Working on behalf of inmates is often tedious and frustrating as it is a challenge to communicate with subjects and work with the legal system. Ultimately, it’s a lot of legwork to get a prisoner’s case back to court, but it’s worth it for Lewis. For him, the stakes are high and the people are desperate. “It’s so rewarding to help people like this because they are some of the most powerless people in our country,” he said. “If someone doesn’t intervene they’re going to die in prison.” It’s a lot of responsibility to take on especially on a pro bono basis, but Lewis affirms that it is worth it in the end. “It’s better than getting recognition or even money,” he said. “It’s hard to describe.”
Rahn affirms that working these cases can be an emotional rollercoaster. Some of the longer cases involve years of dedication in which you suffer right along with the client. But Rahn insists that every investigator should attempt at least one wrongful conviction case. He said, “Once they experience the emotion and the satisfaction of completing one, I think they’ll be hooked just like we were.” To illustrate, he described the case of Jonathan Fleming, a yearlong investigation full of sharp twists and turns. In 1989, authorities accused Fleming of shooting a man named Darryl Rush in a neighborhood of Brooklyn. Though Fleming had a strong alibi proved with tickets and receipts, he still went to prison for 25 years based on an unreliable witness’s testimony. In the end, Rahn’s investigation team not only proved Fleming’s innocence but also found a witness who claimed to know the actual shooter’s identity. Rahn described the courtroom in which they vacated Fleming’s conviction as “circus-like,” where the heavy emotions of everyone who had been involved with the case manifested in long embraces and lots of tears. “He came in, in handcuffs,” said Rahn. “And he walked out the front door as a free man.”
The Role of an Investigator
Private investigators play an essential role in a defense team working to free the wrongfully incarcerated. Their in-depth research skills, observant eye, and ability to glean information from witnesses are all utilized heavily in cases like this. For investigators who feel the pull to solve wrongful conviction cases, here’s how your expertise could aid in restoring justice for these men and women.
Knowledge of the Law
First and foremost, any successful private investigator needs to have a firm knowledge of the law as a foundation. This is true with any type of case but is especially important when looking for flaws in a criminal case. You need to be able to recognize misconduct within either the court or law enforcement and be able to accurately express what qualifies it as misconduct.
A dedicated investigator also needs to maintain constant communication with the defense attorney. Having a solid working relationship with the attorney or any other legal professionals involved in the case is crucial to getting valuable information and the ability to use it in court. Seeing yourselves as a whole defense team working for a common goal will also provide the added bonus of encouragement and accountability during the rougher parts of the case. Communication with the prisoner and their family is also vital since they are the ones experiencing the case first hand. They’re often the most reliable source of information about witnesses, physical evidence, and how the case was handled the first time around.
One of the most important responsibilities for an investigator in a wrongful conviction case is researching and obtaining relevant evidence. It is the role of the investigator to uncover any potential new evidence by going to the crime scene, fact-checking, and locating witnesses. Even small details, such as discrepancy with the time of day or a witness not having their glasses can support or dismantle an entire case. A big aspect of this is being able to cull important information from witnesses. Often, investigators will have to dedicate time to convincing witnesses to talk which sometimes requires the help of family or friends.
Ultimately, only the most determined investigators will successfully win an exoneration. Wrongful conviction cases can take years of intense research and careful navigation through a broken system. But the dedicated work of a private investigator has the power to restore justice using the skills they already have at their disposal.
Wrapped up in wrongful conviction cases are a whole host of challenges that can make exonerations seem like a lofty and unrealistic goal. But private investigators face impossible odds on a regular basis and overcome them with zeal. And when the payoff means restored justice and freedom, the struggle is worth it.
For Marvin Anderson, the man who spent 20 years behind bars because of racism and faulty evidence, restored justice looked like returning to his family, his children, and fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter. Not only that, but he went on to serve as Chief of the Hanover, Virginia Fire Department, where he oversees a team of 30 people. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Innocence Project where he continues the fight for justice as a free man.
Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” - Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
For more information about wrongful conviction cases and to hear directly from an exoneree, tune into this special Legal Talk Network series featuring the show Proven Innocent.