Wrongful convictions cases are more frequent than you can imagine.
Let’s take a look at the case of Jason Strong. He was released in 2015 after 15 years in a maximum security prison. He was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted: the torture and murder of Mary Kate Sunderlin, whose death remains under investigation.
In December of 1999, Mary Kate’s body was found, badly beaten, in a forest preserve on the North side of Chicago. A few days later, Jason Strong was arrested on charges of murder.
Can you imagine going through this for a crime you didn’t commit?
Vulnerable Life Circumstances
Jason was only 24 years old at the time. He had no knowledge of the crime at all, other than what he had heard through the grapevine. That the police had the power to come into his home, take him to jail, and lock him up for 15 years regardless of his innocence probably hadn’t occurred to him at the time.
The things that made him vulnerable were life circumstances which many innocent people share and a system much more powerful than him.
At the time, Jason worked at an adult bookstore and lived next door. Because of his profession, there was a man on the police force who singled him out one day, asking Jason to become his informant about drug deals.
Not wanting to make any trouble, Jason told the man the truth: he didn’t know about any drug deals and didn’t want to become an informant. He just wanted to do his job.
The Fateful Day
Then came the fateful day an undercover cop posing as a prostitute came to hang out around the area where Jason worked and lived.
He and the man who would become his co-defendant, Jeremy Tweedy, struck up a conversation with her in an effort to get her some help.
It was when Jason went back home and Tweedy remained outside with the woman that Tweedy told the woman she shouldn’t be hanging around outside because it was too dangerous.
Tweedy told her a woman had been taken by a bunch of people in a van, beaten and killed – alluding to the body which had been found earlier that month.
A few days later, Tweedy was arrested, coerced into confession, and implicated Jason – the man he had only met once.
Jason was arrested, coerced, l and defended poorly in the trial. Everything that could have worked against him did. You can listen to him tell his story on Revolver Podcasts.
Wrongful Convictions Cases are not Uncommon
Jason Strong’s story is sadly not atypical. Without realizing it, he was living in an area of the country which has become notorious for wrongful convictions cases.
While Jason did receive a $9 million settlement, paid out by the various cities involved in convicting him, the policemen directly involved in his wrongful conviction will not be held responsible.
Actually, according to Jason’s lawsuit as reported by the Chicago Tribune:
“The lawsuit claimed that the behaviors that led to Strong’s false conviction were “widespread within the Waukegan police department,” which “far from disciplining or firing these officers, the City of Waukegan rewarded and promoted them, such that the officers have flourished within the department and within the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force despite their troubled records.”
The Innocence Project
In the years since the Innocence Project started, the number of exonerations has risen steadily. An all-time high number of exonerations of 149 people in 2015 alone has started to point to a pattern within our justice system.
We like to think this is something which doesn’t happen at all. However, if just 1% of those 2 million people currently incarcerated in our country are actually innocent, that’s 20,000 people. Some of whom are on death row.
But the increasing rate at which exonerations are happening points to an even scarier thought: maybe wrongful convictions are happening at an even higher rate than 1%.
The Innocence Project has uncovered 6 main causes for wrongful convictions cases in our country. They are important enough that I’d like to write about each one in turn and the implications this has for our justice system. Here is the list of the 6 main causes:
- Incentivized Informants
- Inadequate Defense
- Misapplication of Forensic Science
- Government Misconduct
- False Confessions or Admissions
- Eyewitness Misidentification
To learn more about exonerations, you can follow the National Registry of Exonerations project.
Jason Strong’s case involved almost every one of these elements. The outrageous truth is that his case wasn’t unusual. He was exonerated in 2015 by medical evidence. It showed that the victim died several days before the time he had killed her.
These problems were widespread, casually treated, even rewarded. The amount of work and legal power and force it took to overturn Jason’s conviction was likewise huge. Without the help of several large legal firms in Chicago, Jason was on his own and basically powerless.
This brings me to my last point. The problem of wrongful convictions cases should be unsettling for those of us who aren’t at the mercy of the justice system in the same way Jason Strong was.
Because you, or someone you love, could be next. We all have to do everything we can to make the system better.
If you or a loved one has been wrongfully convicted of a crime, there is hope. Call my office today.
You may also like to read Wrongful Convictions: What You Need to Know