In The Innocent Convicts, The Reporters Inc. delves into the causes surrounding wrongful convictions by profiling cases throughout the country. We show how perjured testimony, witness misidentification, faulty medical evidence, coerced confessions, evidence tampering, police misconduct, incompetent counsel, criminal justice lapses, racial injustice, and socioeconomic disparities are just some of the many reasons how, and why, a wrongful conviction can occur.
We show how this life-destroying nightmare could easily happen to YOU, or someone you know or love–no matter how honest, upstanding and law-abiding you think you might be.
As of July 2017, the National Registry of Exonerations lists 2,068 men and women who’ve been cleared of wrongful convictions in the last 25 years. 47 percent were black and 40 percent had been incarcerated for at least ten years before their exonerations. Leaders of the Registry, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the most comprehensive collection of exonerations in the U.S., believe the list represents just a sliver of the true number of those falsely accused and still imprisoned.
At the same time, in a 2006 opinion, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stated that, at the very most, the number of wrongful felony convictions in America stands at no more than 0.027 percent.
Regardless, all can agree that even a single wrongful conviction is troubling. And the Timothy Cole case–one of several we’re profiling in The Innocent Convicts–is among the most egregious.
In March 1985, a 20-year-old Texas Tech student was brutally raped by an African American man in a parking lot a couple of blocks away from her dormitory. This incident, among similar sexual assaults, shocked parents, students and the university town of Lubbock, Texas.
Desperate for an arrest, the Lubbock Police Department pulled out all the stops, even sending an undercover female police officer into the neighborhoods where the attacks occurred. On assignment, she met and mingled with another Texas Tech student, Tim Cole, who matched the victim’s description; as a result he was arrested and charged with the crime. This, despite the fact all the rape victims described their attacker as a heavy smoker—and Cole was asthmatic. While no physical evidence linked Cole to the crime, in September 1986 an all-white jury convicted him. He was sentenced to 25 years. Never once did he admit guilt, refusing to take blame for a crime he did not commit.
In 1995, another Texas prisoner, Jerry Wayne Johnson, wrote to police and prosecutors in Lubbock to confess that he had actually committed the rape. But it took years for his letters to be acknowledged by authorities. With the advent of DNA testing, the results were later conclusive: Johnson was the rapist, not Cole.
But it all came too late. Cole died in prison in 1999–from an asthma attack– after serving 13 years. He never even learned that Johnson was trying to confess.
We recently traveled to Fort Worth, Lubbock, Amarillo and Lamesa to conduct interviews with Cole’s family, leaders of the Innocence Project of Texas, attorneys and cops involved in the Cole case, and even the still-imprisoned Jerry Wayne Johnson himself, The Reporters Inc. explains how Cole has become the face of wrongful convictions in Texas. We show how his tragic story has helped change laws and mindsets, but reveal there’s still much more to be done.
Here’s a link to the trailer for The Innocent Convicts that focuses on Tim Cole (click to play):
The Reporters Inc. plans to also include at least half a dozen other wrongful conviction cases around the nation in The Innocent Convicts. Among them:
* Mike Hansen, a Minnesota man who was wrongfully convicted of killing his infant daughter, based mainly on questionable medical expert testimony. Hansen served six years of a 14-year sentence before being exonerated by the Innocence Project. We also interviewed Hansen’s friends and family members who told us how he continues to be affected by his conviction today. Hansen suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his ordeal.
Here’s a link to the trailer for The Innocent Convicts that focuses on Mike Hansen (click to play):
*Audrey Edmunds, a Wisconsin stay-at-home mom who babysat for neighborhood families. Edmunds was accused of killing a child in her care based on “Shaken Baby Syndrome” theories, sentenced to 18 years, and served nearly 11 of those before the Wisconsin Innocence Project stepped in and presented new information casting doubt on Shaken Baby Syndrome. Edmunds’ conviction was overturned. Today, she’s still putting the pieces of her life back together, after being separated from her own three daughters throughout most of their childhood. Her husband divorced her midway through her prison term.
Here’s a link to the trailer for The Innocent Convicts that focuses on Audrey Edmunds (click to play):
“The Innocent Convicts”: Audrey Edmunds Trailer
*Uriah Courtney, a San Diego man who, like Tim Cole, was also wrongfully convicted of a rape he didn’t commit. We headed to California to interview Courtney, his family, and elders of the CA Innocence Project. Courtney’s story, fortunately, has a happier ending than Cole’s because DNA evidence cleared him before he could languish and die in prison.
*The Monfils Six This case involves a growing movement to free five men who were convicted of killing a co-worker (Tom Monfils) at a paper mill in the early 1990s. A sixth, Mike Piaskowski, was exonerated in 2001 and has been fighting to help free the others (Dale Basten, Mike Hirn, Mike Johnson, Keith Kutska and Rey Moore) ever since. Thanks to an exhaustive investigative effort by two authors who spent seven years writing a book about the convictions (The Monfils Conspiracy), new attorneys are taking a fresh look at the case and are now arguing that Monfils’ death was actually a suicide. Did police and prosecutorial tunnel vision result in the most egregious miscarriage of justice in Wisconsin history? We interviewed the lead detective and chief prosecutor in the case, Piaskowski and his family, family members of Kutska and Moore, the authors of The Monfils Conspiracy, and Tom Monfils’ brother, Cal.
“The Monfils Six” (Top: Keith Kutska, Dale Basten, Rey Moore; Bottom: Mike Hirn, Mike Piaskowski (exonerated), Mike Johnson
*Lamont McKoy has been behind bars for 27 years in connection with a Fayetteville, North Carolina homicide during a drug deal gone wrong. Serving a life sentence, McKoy is now represented by the Duke University School of Law’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic (in Durham) in his fight to prove his innocence. We sat down for an extensive interview with McKoy inside the Sanford Correctional Center; McKoy, arrested at the age of 18, has never wavered in his claims of innocence, refused to take a plea deal, and today, at the age of 45, still stands by that declaration. Four years after McKoy’s conviction, witnesses, investigators and prosecutors involved with a different drug case in North Carolina presented evidence in federal court indicating that McKoy wasn’t actually responsible for the crime. Yet that information and testimony, which could potentially clear McKoy, has never been allowed into a state court for a hearing. The Reporters Inc. has also interviewed McKoy’s new attorney, as well as his mother, brother, son, ex-wife and others. We retraced the steps of McKoy and the victim on the night in question back in 1990, as well as those of the man federal authorities said is actually responsible for the murder.
*Our seventh story for the documentary is in development; we’re working with the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Details to be announced soon.
One of the United States’ most cherished tenets is to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans. Based on extensive research, exclusive interviews and in-depth reporting, the goal with The Innocent Convicts is to beam a powerful light on the grave injustices and horrendous penalties Tim Cole, Mike Hansen, Audrey Edmunds, Uriah Courtney, the men convicted in the Green Bay paper mill death (and others) have suffered, the disruptions and agony caused for their families, and the failings of law enforcement in America. We want to spur action and elevate conversation around these issues, and present solutions.
In addition to film and television release, we intend for the documentary to be utilized as an educational tool, and be distributed to universities, law colleges, libraries, and secondary schools, as well as organizations such as the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Action Network, and The Innocence Project. The ultimate goal is to present the film in front of policymakers working to evoke social change.
The Reporters Inc. has secured support from PBS stations around the country to air this documentary. As of August 2015, stations in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Bemidji/Brainerd, Chicago (both WTTW and WYCC), Lincoln, Lubbock, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Sacramento and Topeka have provided either Letters of Support, Interest or Intent to Air, or expressed interest in becoming the production’s presenting station. The program will be distributed nationally, either through a presenting station, through the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), American Public Television (APT), or the PBS Network Operations Center, Westlink.
Funding for the film, so far, has come from a grant from the Minnesota State Bar Association Foundation, a successful crowdfunding campaign via IndieGoGo, and supporter contributions via events like GiveMN.org’s annual “Give to the Max Day” and #GivingTuesday. Your support will enable us to continue financing the production.
The Innocent Convicts is the brainchild of Texas Tech University student Osagie Okoruwa, who brought the project to The Reporters Inc. and is serving as the film’s director. The Reporters Inc.’s executive director, Mark Saxenmeyer, is serving as executive producer of the film. The Innocent Convicts is set for completion in 2018.
For more information, or to see the full project proposal, contact email@example.com. And to make a fully tax-deductible donation to help fund the film, click on our Support and Donate Page: http://www.thereporters.org/support-us/