When innocence is pink
Wrongly convicted women fight for recognition, support, remedies
Published: January 12, 2011
Calling themselves "Women and Innocence," the new group is the first of its kind.
"This was something that had been on my mind for a long time," says Joyce Ann Brown, falsely accused and convicted in Texas of a double murder. Released 21 years ago after serving nine years, she runs a nonprofit organization that helps men and women, guilty or innocent of the crimes for which they served time, readjust to society. "I just truly know that this is going to be an organization that will be able to assist innocent women in prison."
Wrongly accused women can trace their history in the United States to the infamous Salem witch trials in 17th century colonial Massachusetts. Seizures were thought to be a manifestation of a woman possessed by evil spirits.
But even for recent decades, there's no tallying or cataloging of cases where women have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated.
What researchers do know is that the U.S. prison population has doubled over the last two decades, from less than 700,000 in 1989 to about 1.5 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. The number of women in prison has risen every year since 2001 when there were about 93,000 incarcerated women to last year when 113,462 women were counted, the U.S. Justice Department reports.
As the number of incarcerated women increases, so too, the thinking goes, do the ranks of those who are actually innocent.
Marvin Zalman, a criminal justice professor at Wayne State University, estimates 10,000 people are wrongfully convicted each year across the country, representing 1 percent of criminal cases. A 2004 study from the University of California Irvine suggested that about 7,500 innocent men or women could have been convicted of serious crimes — including murder, rape, aggravated assault and arson — in 2000.
But no credible data exists on how many of those could be women.
Some researchers, though, have analyzed the known cases of women's exonerations, which are not many but continue to increase. Just 25 women were among roughly 700 cases of known wrongful convictions in 2005 as cataloged by Northwestern University's Center for Wrongful Convictions, according to published research.
Wisconsin researchers Mitch Ruesink and Marvin Free examined dozens of cases of wrongly convicted women in the United States and reached several conclusions. First, the women were most often convicted for murder or child abuse. Second, while the most common reason for men's wrongful convictions was eyewitness error, the most prevalent problem for women was unethical police and prosecutors. An added cause of women's wrongful convictions was erroneous testimony from alleged child victims, a tough piece of the case for juries to overlook and acquit.
"A lot of circumstantial evidence results in these women being put behind bars," says Jennifer Cobbina, assistant professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University. "We sometimes like to think that this cannot happen to us, that this can only happen to certain people in certain situations, but it can happen to anyone."
Imprisoned women lose parental rights and eventually custody of their children if they are behind bars more than a few months, Cobbina says. In addition, they may have to deal with the inherent loss, grief and guilt of feeling they should have prevented their children's harm.
"That grief is still waiting for you and you still have to deal with it," Caldwell says. "It's different because of who they are accused of hurting."
One of Caldwell's clients was convicted because she "should have known" her husband was going to harm her child. "Men never get charged with the 'you knew or should have known' the kids were going to get hurt. Women do. We hold them to a higher standard," Caldwell says. "I think it's bullshit, frankly, but a lot of women get accused of that."
Inside and out
Though prisoners — men and women — have access to prison law libraries and can work on their own cases, their fights for innocence are handled by devoted, sometimes pro bono or university-based attorneys, law students, investigators and other advocates.
"Women for some reason get complacent once they get in prison and they don't have that fight that the men have to research and fight and sue and whatever the case might be for better conditions, whatever they're fighting for," says Brown. "They need some support."
That support can provide new evidence, the uncovering of inconsistencies or even malfeasance in police investigations and prosecutorial misconduct and other reasons for wrongful convictions, from jailhouse snitches to bad defense lawyering.
"If you look at the causes of wrongful conviction, they apply equally to women as they do to men. It's just, unfortunately, given the nature of DNA exonerations, women are not going to be able to be benefited by it as much," says Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York. "It's just more difficult to exonerate because we don't have DNA evidence to test."
Neufeld and Barry Scheck founded the Innocence Project in 1992. Since then, the project's work has exonerated 261 men using DNA evidence — identifying genetic markers found in blood and semen. Nearly all of the Innocence Project's cases have involved rape charges or a dual rape-murder scenario where the perpetrator was a man and the DNA evidence was made available to defendants.
"Obviously you're not going to be having semen evidence to exonerate a woman," Neufeld says.
The project's efforts have led to exonerations for four women. In those cases the women were co-defendants with men for rape and murder.
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