Wrongful Convictions

Hosted byIan Punnett

Wrongful Convictions

About the show

In the past thirty years alone, more than 2,800 innocent American prisoners—their combined sentences surpassing 25,000 years—have been exonerated and freed after being condemned for crimes they did not commit. This number represents only a fraction of the actual number of persons wrongfully accused and convicted over the same period. David S. Rudolf, the defense attorney seen in the Netflix series The Staircase and co-host of the Webby Award-winning criminal justice podcast Abuse of Power, joined host Ian Punnett (Twitter) to discuss his work defending the wrongfully convicted, and issues within the criminal justice system.

Rudolf presented a case from Charlotte, North Carolina, where a doctor was convicted of brutally murdering his wife. The doctor had, in fact, found his wife's body and phoned the police, Rudolf reported, noting police on the scene did not think the husband was sufficiently emotional about his wife's death. Homicide investigators had a excellent alternative suspect but after they discovered the husband had an affair with a nurse and sought the counsel of a divorce attorney, they turned all of their attention to him, he added. The doctor was ultimately proven innocent, and Rudolf blamed confirmation bias, tunnel vision, and police corruption for the wrongful conviction.

Rudolf talked about Chicago homicide commander John Burge who was notorious for obtaining false convictions through fabricated confessions. Over the past decade the city has paid in excess of $100 million dollars in settlements to people who were incarcerated for murders they did not commit, he revealed. There are similar cases from New York and other cities where detectives took it upon themselves to manufacture evidence in order to obtain a conviction, he said, noting how state prosecutors fight against attempts to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

In a case from Tennessee this even extended to a person who had been executed. A family member had tried to get DNA testing done to prove their relative did not commit the murder for which they were put to death. According to Rudolf, the state fought the request as well as prevented it from happening before the execution. "The state does not want anyone to prove it put to death somebody who was innocent," he suggested, adding there is very good evidence the expert testimony in this case was fabricated, and the executed man is likely innocent of the charges.

Life after a wrongful conviction can be devastating, Rudolf opined. "The fact that somebody is acquitted who never should have been prosecuted doesn't mean that the system worked, it means that the damage wasn't as great as it could have been," he said. There are literally thousands of people who are arrested for crimes they did not commit, and even after the charges are dismissed those wrongfully convicted can lose their families, jobs, homes, and honor, Rudolf noted. These cases are merely the tip of the iceberg of a greater issue of the thousands of people who are wrongfully accused each year, he disclosed.

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