For many years my husband and I have periodically discussed what it would be like to help innocent people be freed from prison. After watching tonight's "Dateline NBC", we wish more than ever, that we could help.
This week, a young man wrongly convicted of murder, Ryan Ferguson was freed after 10 years in prison. Several years after his conviction, an attorney who had heard of the case, Kathleen Zellner, took on his case pro-bono as she knew in her heart he did not commit the crime. She has freed numerous innocent people in her career.
Innocent people are convicted every single day. The scary part is, it could happen to anyone.
When a sports editor for a Columbia, MO newspaper was murdered, the case went for two years without much of a break. A young man with whom Ryan Ferguson had been with on the night of the murder suddenly, two years later went to police and said that he and Ryan murdered the man. No physical evidence matched either person to the crime yet a confession was made and the jury convicted quickly.
A twenty year old young man suddenly found himself in prison. He came from a nice loving family; was in his second year of college with a bright future then TWO YEARS LATER without any warning, his life and existence were turned upside down.
The case was botched from the beginning. There were eyewitnesses that were never called to testify. One eyewitness that lied on the stand recanted years later. Then, the young man who claimed he and Ryan committed the crime also recanted his story yet the judge continued to deny Ryan his freedom.
According to a study conducted in Ohio, each year about 10,000 people in the United States may be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. The results are based on a survey of 188 judges, prosecuting attorneys, public defenders, sheriffs and police chiefs in Ohio and 41 state attorney generals. The study also found that the most important factor leading to wrongful conviction is eyewitness misidentification.
If in fact these statistics are even close to correct, 10,000 people every year end up in prison, living everyday with the knowledge that they should be free. That the life they were living has been stolen from them; that the ONE LIFE they have will be eaten away behind bars.
Two of my favorite movies of all time are about this exact subject. "The Life of David Gale" and "The Shawshank Redemption". One ends tragically and one ends in hope and triumph. Both prove however that innocent people can fight to the death that they did not commit their alleged crimes and our justice system fails miserably.
Attorney Zellner stated that when the two eyewitnesses both recanted their testimony, it was unheard of that the judge did not overturn the conviction. There had not been another case anywhere where this occurred. So, why? Ryan spent another year and a half behind bars because of that decision.
But now, it is over. With the relentless efforts of his family and attorney, he is a free man. But how many others sit and either wait for appeals or have resigned themselves to a life in prison despite their innocence? And if they do get out? Ryan is nervous.
“I've started to get stressed out about a few things which is kind of strange to me,’’ Ferguson told Dateline NBC's Keith Morrison. “It's a whole different life. I know what to do in prison. I know where to be and when to be there and how to do things. Out here it’s a completely different environment. You know, I've got to find my way essentially.”
It's just like Red said in Shawshank. He's been institutionalized.
So despite his freedom, Ryan will have much adjusting to do. Life on the outside is different.
And what about al the other innocent people waiting for their day? Visit the site www.theinnocenceproject.org. Learn how you and anyone you know can help. We all only have one life to live. The innocent need to be freed.
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