Gregory Bright: A real crime: Wrongfully convicted

  • Article by: GREGORY BRIGHT
  • Updated: October 24, 2010 - 6:27 PM

The new movie "Conviction" highlights a dark reality about the justice system and the unreliability of eyewitnesses.

The new movie "Conviction," starring Hilary Swank, highlights a great injustice: how easy it is to put innocent people behind bars. I know because I spent 27 1/2 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a murder I did not commit, based on a bad eyewitness identification.

"Conviction" tells the story of Betty Anne Waters, who put herself through law school with the sole purpose of exonerating her brother, Kenny Waters. Kenny Waters' 18-year imprisonment was horrifying and chilling, and mistakes like the one that put him in prison happen all too often.

Eyewitness misidentification played a role in more than 75 percent of the first 220 wrongful convictions that were overturned through DNA testing. To date, there have been 259 exonerations based on DNA testing; the other leading causes include inaccurate forensics, false confessions, police or prosecutorial misconduct, and bad lawyering by defense attorneys.

Most wrongfully convicted people don't have adequate legal representation, don't have a sister who dedicates her life to the cause, and don't have money or contacts or any way to go up against an aggressive prosecutorial system. Many innocent people are handed life sentences without the possibility of parole.

I was one of them.

I was convicted of second-degree murder based solely on the unsubstantiated and uncorroborated testimony of an "eyewitness" who did not see the actual shooting. A jury spent 13 minutes deliberating my case. I was sentenced to serve the remainder of my natural life at hard labor without the possibility of parole.

I was poor, uneducated and naive, and kept believing the system would correct itself. It did -- after 27 1/2 years.

Kenny Waters and his sister battled through the court system for 18 years before proving his innocence.

And yet, Kenny and I are two of the "lucky" ones. We both -- eventually -- had help from the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to representing wrongfully convicted inmates.

We must stop wrongful convictions.

We should demand that our district attorneys implement procedures that have been proven to reduce the number of eyewitness misidentifications. Two of these include ensuring the person administering the lineup does not know who the suspect is and making sure "fillers" (non-suspects included in a lineup) resemble the eyewitnesses' description of the perpetrator. These simple steps would have helped me, Kenny and so many other wrongfully convicted men and women.

Mark my words: There still are innocent people in prison. For many of them, these reforms may already be too late. I urge you to see "Conviction."

Gregory Bright is assistant director of education and outreach for Innocence Project New Orleans. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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