10 Astonishingly Cruel Tales of the Exonerated in America

There are just 10 people on this list. There could easily have been 100, or 1,000, or 1,579—which is the number of people exonerated since 1989 in the U.S., according to the National Registry of Exonerations. (A record 125 exonerations were recorded in 2014 alone.) DNA evidence has done for the wrongfully convicted what cell phone cameras did for victims of police brutality: proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that they exist in vast and widely underreported numbers. And yet, the ability of both to deliver justice is often complicated by a system that is deeply rooted in inequality.


There is an exoneration every three days in this country. Studies find that more than 4 percent of those sentenced to die are innocent. Exonerees are overwhelmingly poor and uneducated, and a majority have been people of color. Nearly half, 47 percent, are African American. The Innocence Project, which is responsible for more than 330 exonerations, calculates the average amount of time served as 14 years. Together, the innocent people it has freed—a fraction of the total number of exonerees—spent 4,505 years in jail for crimes they did not commit.

With numbers like this, it is impossible to include every case of someone who has been wrongly imprisoned. (It is also gut-wrenching and infuriating to spend hours reading their stories of injustice.) This list is an infinitesimal part of the big picture. But it is here, a tiny contribution to a conversation about the myriad ways our criminal justice system, from start to finish, cop to jury, persists in not just failing but actively abusing this country’s most vulnerable and marginalized citizens.

1. Ricky Jackson, 39 years. The longest serving exonerated person in U.S. history, Ricky Jackson, along with brothers Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman, was arrested in 1975 in connection with the brutal murder of Cleveland, Ohio, businessman Howard Franks. Their convictions rested on the word of 12-year-old Eddie Vernon, who claimed that from the vantage point of his school bus, he’d seen Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman attack Franks in front of a local convenience store. Vernon testified to witnessing the teenagers play out the gruesome details of the case—beating Franks with a metal pipe, throwing acid in his face, fatally shooting him twice and robbing him of a briefcase holding a little over $400. An additional non-fatal shot also struck the store owner’s wife, Anna Robinson. Though there were no other eyewitnesses nor any additional evidence to support Vernon’s constantly shifting story—and none of the three accused had prior criminal records—Jackson and Wiley were both placed on death row. Ronnie Bridgeman, charged with driving the getaway car, received a lengthy sentence.

In 2013, Eddie Vernon recanted, saying he’d fabricated the story simply to help the police, and had gotten Jackson's and the Bridgemans’ names from a friend. He also claimed police and prosecutors, eager to make a conviction, supplied him with additional necessary facts. "All the information was fed to me,'' he said late last year. "I don't have any knowledge about what happened at the scene of the crime...Everything was a lie. They were all lies.''

When the Ohio Innocence Project successfully helped exonerate Ricky Jackson (below right) and Wiley Bridgeman (below left) in November 2014, they’d each served 39 years. Ronnie Bridgeman, who’d already been released from prison after serving more than 25 years, was also exonerated. The Ohio Court of Claims subsequently awarded Jackson $1 million for “wrongful imprisonment.” Jackson, who entered jail at the age of 18, was 57 at the time of his release. On the day he was freed, he told reporters, “The English language doesn't have the words to express how I'm feeling right now.''

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2. Jonathan Fleming, 25 years. There’s an old Patrice O’Neal (R.I.P.) stand-up bit about buying something every 15 minutes to collect receipts so he can't be accused of killing a white woman. The dark truth of the joke rests on the idea that a black man might actually need tangible, timestamped receipts to ensure he won’t be falsely accused of a crime. Jonathan Fleming’s case is proof even that’s not always enough.   

On August 15, 1989, Darryl Rush was shot and killed in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Fleming had an airtight alibi: he was at Disney World. He told his lawyers that a receipt for calls made while on vacation was in his pocket at the time of arrest, but authorities said it didn’t exist. The lone eyewitness was a woman who recanted her story before sentencing, testifying before a judge that cops had offered to drop grand larceny charges against her if she identified Fleming as the shooter. The judge ignored her testimony and Fleming was sentenced to 25 years.

In 2014, while serving the final year of his sentence, the Brooklyn District Attorney's Conviction Review Unit found the receipt Fleming had been banking on a quarter century earlier buried in a police file. Taylor Koss, one of Fleming’s lawyers, told CNN, "This is proof of alibi that was basically purposely withheld.” The piece of paper placed Fleming where he said he’d been the whole time—more than 1,000 miles away from the murder scene in a hotel in Orlando, Florida. Added Koss on the heels of Fleming’s exoneration, "We're suing everybody, let's be honest.”

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3. Glenn Ford, 30 years. Louisiana’s longest serving exonerated person, Glenn Ford’s case exhibited such disturbing injustice that the original prosecutor in the case recently published a lengthy open letter of apology. Ford spent three decades on death row for the murder of Isadore Rozeman, a Shreveport jeweler for whom he sometimes did odd jobs. On November 5, 1983, Ford went to Rozeman’s home to inquire about yard work but was told there was none. When Rozeman was found shot to death in his store hours later, the blame fell on Ford. He was tried “before an all-white jury [and] defended by two inexperienced counsel who had never argued before a jury, let alone made a case in a murder trial.”

In his March 8, 2015, open letter of apology, lead prosecutor A.M. Stroud III paints a dark picture of the system that sent Ford to jail not by accident, but by design. Stroud admits purposely striking African-American juror candidates from the pool, knowingly using “dubious testimony” from a forensic pathologist and neglecting to “disclose promptly” potentially exculpatory evidence. He writes, “I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning.” Later in the same letter, he admits, “Looking back at that period of time in my life, I was not a very nice person, and I had no business trying a death case for the state. My unintended victim, Glenn Ford.” The case, he says, convinced him that “the death penalty is an anathema to any society that purports to call itself civilized.”

Glenn Ford was released from Louisiana’s Angola prison on March 11, 2014. Within months of being exonerated, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Earlier this year, a judge denied his claim for financial restitution for the decades he spent in jail. The Innocence Project-New Orleans is now appealing that decision, but Ford likely doesn’t have much time left. Innocence Project lawyer Kristin Wenstrom told the Huffington Post, “He literally has nothing. Money right now is going to hospice care.” Those funds have been raised through crowdfunding. Online donations for Ford’s healthcare can be made via CloudRise, here.

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4. David Vasquez, 5 years. The ACLU makes clear why mentally disabled people are “particularly vulnerable to being wrongfully convicted.” They are more likely to confess to crimes they didn’t commit in order to appease interrogators. Their limited mental competence makes them less capable of fully comprehending the law and their legal rights, including “the significance of waiving those rights.” And they are more easily coerced and bullied, as evidenced by the case of David Vasquez. Identified in court papers as “borderline mentally retarded,” Vasquez was sentenced to death in 1985 in Virginia for the rape and murder of Carol Hamm. The ACLU offers an excerpt of the police interrogation transcript, which clearly shows the unethical means by which authorities extracted Vasquez’s false confession:

Detective 1: Did she tell you to tie her hands behind her back?

Vasquez: Ah, if she did, I did.

Detective 2: Whatcha use?

Vasquez: The ropes?

Detective 2: No, not the ropes. Whatcha use?

Vasquez: Only my belt.

Detective 2: No, not your belt...Remember being out in the sunroom, the room that sits out to the back of the house?...and what did you cut down? To use?

Vasquez: That, uh, clothesline?

Detective 2: No, it wasn't a clothesline, it was something like a clothesline. What was it? By the window? Think about the Venetian blinds, David. Remember cutting the Venetian blind cords?

Vasquez: Ah, it's the same as rope?

Detective 2: Yeah.

Detective 1: Okay, now tell us how it went, David – tell us how you did it.

Vasquez: She told me to grab the knife, and, and, stab her, that's all.

Detective 2: (voice raised) David, no, David.

Vasquez: If it did happen, and I did it, and my fingerprints were on it...

Detective 2: (Slamming his hand on the table and yelling) You hung her!

Vasquez: What?

Detective 2: You hung her!

Vasquez: Okay, so I hung her.

Vasquez served five years before Timothy Wilson Spencer, aka the Southside Strangler, was linked to the murder.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution places specific prohibitions on executing the intellectually disabled. However, individual states continue to find ways to circumnavigate the ruling, as in the 2015 executions of Robert Ladd in Texas and Warren Lee Hill in Georgia.

5. Lathierial Boyd, 23 years. The details of Lathierial Boyd’s arrest and conviction read like a textbook definition of railroading; the characters involved a reminder of the truth in the old cliché that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Much of Boyd's story is tied to one of the most sinister and corrupt figures in Chicago law enforcement who advanced to become a key figure in the U.S. War on Terror.

After an early morning shooting outside a Chicago nightclub in 1990 left 19-year-old Michael Fleming dead, 22-year-old Ricky Warner paralyzed and three other men injured, police needed a suspect. Three of the victims gave police a description of the gunman, while Warner—shot in the back and unable to see the assailant—suggested a man he owed money to named “Rat” might be responsible. Boyd, who once used that nickname, heard police were looking for him and turned himself in. A successful 24-year-old real estate agent, Boyd allowed lead detective Richard Zuley to search his expensive loft. Despite not matching the description of the suspect by weight, height, skin tone or facial hair, and having an alibi that placed him at his sister’s house (her boyfriend, a deputy sheriff, testified to the same), Boyd was arrested. Zuley—who’d long been accused of planting evidence, threatening the safety of suspects’ families, and using physical violence and torture to secure confessions—reportedly said to Boyd, after scoping out his fancy apartment, “No nigger is supposed to live like this.”

Boyd served 23 years of an 82-year sentence for murder before his exoneration in 2013. Richard Zuley, after 30 years on the Chicago police force, became a lead interrogator at Guantánamo Bay in 2002. A 2015 Guardian investigation of Zuley’s record found “a continuum between Guantánamo interrogation rooms and Chicago police precincts. Zuley’s detective work, particularly when visited on Chicago’s minority communities, contains a dark foreshadowing of the United States’ post-9/11 descent into torture.” The allegations against Zuley are too numerous to name here (including being involved in Chicago’s Homan Square “black site” and the brutal interrogations of Mohamedou Ould Slahi). But it’s worth noting that he played a role in multiple cases of those who remain in jail and maintain their innocence.

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6. Christopher Abernathy, 28 years. There were two things at work in Christopher Abernathy’s nearly three decades of wrongful imprisonment for rape and murder: the first, testimony from a witness essentially bribed by cops to secure a conviction; the second, Abernathy’s intellectual disability, which made it easy for police to coerce a false confession from the 18-year-old.

On October 5, 1984, the body of 15-year-old Kristina Hickey, who’d gone missing two days before, turned up behind a shopping mall in Park Forest, Illinois. Abernathy had previously dated Hickey, and like “several hundred other teenagers” in the small town, attended her funeral. Other attendees claimed he made odd statements at the time. Over a year later, an acquaintance of Abernathy's named Allan Dennis told authorities that Abernathy had admitted to Hickey’s murder. Abernathy reportedly underwent 40 hours of police interrogation before he signed a statement confessing to the crime. According to the National Registry on Exonerations, he recanted before the ink was dry, saying “he signed…because police told him he could go home to his mother if he did.” He was convicted in 1987 on charges of first-degree murder, armed robbery and aggravated sexual assault.

The evidence against Abernathy was not only flimsy, it was nonexistent. Aside from Dennis's statement, there was no physical or other evidence connecting him to the crime. An investigation into the case more than 15 years later revealed police offered to go easy on charges against Dennis if he testified, and gave him $300 (ostensibly to purchase clothing for his court appearance). DNA testing on more than eight of Hickey’s items excluded Abernathy and pointed to a different perpetrator. Abernathy’s lawyers also noted he had “documented learning disabilities.”

Abernathy was released on February 11, 2015, nearly three decades after beginning his sentence. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune he said, “It’s just scary to be out, 'cause that’s all I know.”

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7. Sabrina Butler, 6 years. If the worst thing that can happen to a parent is to lose a child, then perhaps the only thing that compares is to be blamed for causing your child's death. In 1989, Sabrina Butler was the 17-year-old mother of a 9-month-old infant named Walter. According to Butler, one night she awoke to find her son wasn’t breathing. Panicked, she ran with him to two different neighbors’ houses for help. The second woman began performing CPR and instructed Butler on how to administer it herself. Butler says she continued to try to resuscitate her baby, who remained unresponsive, as she took him to the hospital. Doctors also tried to revive him, but Walter died the following day.

The bruises caused by Butler's CPR attempts were attributed to child abuse and used as the basis of her arrest. According to Butler, when she voluntarily went to the police station the morning after her son’s death, she was met by a detective who insisted she had murdered her child. In a piece for Time last year, Butler wrote, “I was alone with no lawyer or parent…I told him I tried to save my baby. He wrote down what I said and threw it in the garbage. He yelled at me for three hours. No matter what I said, he screamed over and over that I had killed my baby. I was terrified. I was put in jail and not allowed to attend Walter’s funeral.”

Butler spent six years on death row before a pro bono legal effort uncovered new evidence of her innocence. A neighbor who had seen her attempt to perform CPR testified for the first time. The medical examiner whose testimony at the original trial had led to Butler's conviction reversed his opinion, stating that the baby had died of a “hereditary kidney condition.” Sabrina Butler was freed and exonerated in December 1995. She is one of only two women ever exonerated from death row in the U.S.

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8, 9 and 10. Laurese Glover, Eugene Johnson and Derrick Wheatt, 18 years. Yet another example of a prosecutor who knowingly suppressed evidence to get a conviction, without regard to the innocence of those he sent to jail. At ages 17, 18 and 17, Laurese Glover, Eugene Johnson and Derrick Wheatt were very young men when they were convicted of the murder of 19-year-old Clifton Hudson Jr. in 1996. An eyewitness’s testimony shifted between initial police questioning and the trial. (She later recanted.) The Ohio Innocence Project notes that the prosecution “offered to completely drop charges against Glover if he testified against his friends and also offered Wheatt probation for his testimony. Both refused and continued to assert their innocence.”

In 2013, a new investigation found information in original police reports neglected at trial. Among these, there was the fact that two witnesses had indicated the shooter came from a different direction than that of the defendants. One of the two “claimed he recognized the shooter as a sibling of one of his classmates.” Hudson had been threatened just one day before the shooting. Neither of these witnesses were questioned, nor any of the information introduced at trial.

Carmen Marino, the lead prosecutor in the case, has since come to be known as a liar who “hid key evidence [and] lied about secret deals with jailed witnesses.” (A 2006 Cleveland Plain Dealer article lists some of Marino’s many misdeeds.) In a scathing 16-page ruling throwing out the conviction, Judge Nancy Margaret Russo stated, “Carmen Marino is infamous in Cuyahoga County for his vindictive, unprofessional and outrageous misconduct in criminal cases...This deliberate, willful and malicious suppression of the evidence was his deliberate distortion of a criminal case to his own ends.”

Watch Russo read from the decision, below.

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