By Staci Strobl
I was reminded of the power of personal narrative to effect social change at the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association conference (MCJA) in Chicago this week. In a welcome break from the academic presentations (not another multiple regression!), participants had the opportunity to hear the stories of three exonerated death row inmates: Randy Steidl and Nate Fields, exonerated in Illinois, and Ron Keine, exonerated by the state of New Mexico. The event was organized and moderated by Dr. Scott Vollum, University of Minnestota- Duluth., and author of Last Words and the Death Penalty: Voices of the Condemned and their Co-Victims (2008).
The speakers routinely tell their stories as part of Witness to Innocence, a group that works to abolish the death penalty on grounds that it can never be perfectly applied even in the best of circumstances, and so always risks taking the life of an innocent-- something that can never be corrected once done.
Many of us in the criminal justice field are aware of the unsettling statistics about false convictions. Whether from the use of present-day DNA technology, re-examinations of other physical evidence, the uncovering of corruption in criminal cases, or the real perpetrators coming forward to confess, an Ohio State study estimates that there could be as many as 10,000 false convictions in the U.S. every year and a more recent crunching of the numbers suggests an error rate in death sentences at over 4%.
However, nothing can replace hearing the harrowing tales of people who faced a criminal justice prosecution that seemed to be like a freight train without brakes. Despite poor evidence and dubious defense attorney representation, juries convicted and sentenced to death Steidl, Fields, and Keine. Every red flag seemed to be ignored by the system, from the exonerated being ill-matched to witness descriptions to jail house snitches willing to lie for their own personal gain. Even outright bribery of judges and witnesses was discovered in Steidl and Keine's cases. Being sentenced to death for something you did not do is an indescribable experience on some level and yet, despcriptions like "it was like sitting on hot coals and not being able to scream" or "It didn't happen in Chicago, but it was Chicago-style" from Steidl humanized a tragedy the likes of which happens all too often.
Taking these stories on the road can't be easy for the exonerated in the sense that in each telling they are reliving a grave miscarriage of justice they only narrowly escaped with their life and liberty. But in doing so they are helping audiences confront the moral dilemmas inherehent in our flawed criminal justice system. The MCJA crowd, as scholars and practitioners, often traffics in quantitative data and aggregate generalizations. But the power of one person's account walking listeners through the emotional trauma of erroneous condemnations keeps alive the human element in this very tragic real-life drama of false convictions. Connecting with these stories of grave injustice will do more to convince the American public of the need for criminal justice reform than any statistic ever could.