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True stories of the people who really didn't do it

NONFICTION

Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongly Convicted

Edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger

Liveright

260 pages, $26.95

By Lee Coppola

Audrey Edmunds spent more than 10 years in Wisconsin prisons for a crime she didn't commit. She had been convicted of shaking to death an infant in her care.

But she refused to admit her guilt at her parole hearings, extending her time behind bars. Meanwhile, her husband divorced her and his visits with their two children stopped.

Attorneys on her behalf filed a myriad of appeals, all but one denied. You're clogging the judicial system with your appeals and you refuse to be “rehabilitated” by admitting guilt, her parole officer told her.

Then medical science determined “shaken baby syndrome” doesn't necessarily result in a death, and a physician, a key witness at her trial, recanted his testimony. That was enough for a federal court to order a new trial and enough for authorities to drop her case.

Edmunds' story illustrates a tragic fact about the nation's penal system — roughly 5 percent of felons behind bars don't belong there.

"Anatomy" brings a human factor to that statistic. Fourteen wrongly convicted men and women tell their stories through the words of noted authors who generally deal in fiction when they write.

Meet Ken Wyniemko, convicted of rape after the victim identified him and a jailhouse snitch seeking a lighter sentence testified Ken told him he did it. “I didn't do it,” he tells a guard, who replies, “Yeah, that's what they all say.”

Wyniemko spent the next nine years behind bars until DNA evidence pointed to another man and the jailhouse snitch came clean. “I got on the stand and admitted that he did it, knowing fully well that he didn't,” the snitch said.

“Wrongful convictions are the law's ultimate horror,” writes author Scott Turow in the book's introduction. “Our vaunted truth-finding system is quite capable of delivering false results.”

Gloria Killian might have been learning that in law school when she was arrested for murder. Her conviction was based on the testimony of the admitted killer, who said Killian masterminded the crime. It took 17 years for the courts to overturn her conviction based on the prosecution's failure to tell her defense counsel the admitted killer's testimony was prompted by his promise of a lighter sentence.

Then there was David Bates, convicted of murder in Chicago, mainly from his signed confession. The trouble was, he never committed the crime and signed the confession only after hours of tortuous interrogation that included a sly threat to kill him and a phony offer to let him go home if he signed. He did 11 years in prison before the story behind his confession was exposed.

Writes author Sara Paretesky: “About twenty detectives took part in torturing people in custody over a period of perhaps nineteen years. Torture included using an electric cattle prod on  people's genitals and bare skin—often in the back of a squad car; attaching electrodes to the ears and to the genitals and running electric currents through them; suffocating people in custody; waterboarding; suspending people by their arms with their feet off the floor; and depriving people of sleep, food and toilets.”

DNA evidence also saved Jerry Miller — but not until he spent 27 years behind bars. Again, it happened in Chicago. Jerry was watching a pay-per-view fight in his mother's house when, miles away in another part of he city, a white woman was assaulted and raped by a black man. The crime drew much media attention and Chicago police were under intense pressure to find a suspect.

Weeks earlier Miller had been arrested for trespassing. The cops who arrested him saw a composite sketch of the rapist and fingered Miller immediately.

“From the time they picked me up for questioning, through the arrest, the trial, I didn't have a clue what was going down,” says Miller. “I know, it's obvious now, looking back, but it took me years to put it together. And once I did, I wondered how they could do it? Not just to me, to anyone?”

“Welcome to racism in America,” explains Barry Scheck, who works with the Innocence Network, a collection of more than 65 legal organizations throughout the county and abroad with the goal of exonerating t the wrongfully convicted.

The injustices highlighted in Anatomy spotlight the sometimes racial reasons behind arrests and convictions. They also show how advances in forensic science — namely DNA — help provide evidence necessary for exoneration.

If "Anatomy" has a flaw, it's its failure to explain adequately the reasons for righting some of the injustices it features. Take the case of Michael Evans, a black man. He spent 27 years behind bars for assaulting and killing an 11-year-old white girl. He was convicted mainly on the supposedly eyewitness testimony of a neighbor who pocketed a $5,000 reward, and his case illustrates the possible unreliability of such testimony.

Evans' family “worked for decades” to prove him innocent, but the only rationale "Anatomy" provides for his freedom was his sister finding medical records for a man who was treated about the time of the crime for “wounds on his penis.”

That's just not enough to satisfy a reader's curiosity about how such an injustice was rectified.

Lee Coppola is a former Buffalo News reporter who went on a career as a broadcaster and then as a lawyer before serving as dean of the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communications at St. Bonaventure University.

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