By Neil Cosgrove
Americans are fond of saying that those accused of a crime are “innocent until proven guilty,” and reassure themselves that trials before “a jury of one’s peers” make conviction of the innocent close to impossible. Unfortunately, Benjamin Rachlin’s haunting book, Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption (New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2017) make such assertions sound like so much whistling past the graveyard.
The title is taken from a statement uttered in 1923 by Judge Learned Hand: “Our dangers do not lie in too little tenderness to the accused. Our procedure has always been haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream.” But Rachlin has set out to demonstrate that the convicted innocent is neither a ghost nor a dream but an all too real consequence of too many criminal procedures in this country.
To personalize his argument he introduces the reader to Willie J. Grimes, a gentle soul wrongly convicted of rape in 1988 in a North Carolina rural courtroom. Grimes’ conviction rested on a mistaken identification by the victim, based on sloppy use of line-ups and the suggestion of a next-door neighbor, as well as on now discredited “junk science” in which the suspect’s hair was matched with that of a single strand found at the crime scene.
In addition, police ignored fingerprint evidence found at that same crime scene, as well as the testimony of several witnesses who placed Mr. Grimes at some distance from the rape during the time it occurred. It’s not surprising that Grimes and these witnesses were all African-American, but the case’s racial element is diminished somewhat by the fact that the next-door neighbor who fingered Grimes and the chief investigating officer were also African-American.
Rachlin chronicles the physical and emotional toll nearly 25 years of ensuing incarceration took on Grimes, a man who steadfastly insisted on his innocence from the moment of his arrest until he is finally exonerated in 2012. And the author does not shy away from the occasionally Kafkaesque flavor of the American penal system, such as Grimes failing in several attempts to obtain parole because, to obtain parole, he must enroll in a program for sex offenders, and in order to enroll he must express remorse for a crime he has not committed. Grimes refused several times, over the course of many years, to sign that expression of remorse.
In alternating chapters, Rachlin describes the development in North Carolina of a then-unique entity known as the Innocence Inquiry Commission, which established procedures for investigating and adjudicating cases of possible wrongful conviction, procedures that eventually exonerated Willie Grimes. The commission is primarily the brain-child of a retired, conservative state Supreme Court judge and his one-time law clerk, a young attorney named Chris Mumma, also a Republican but with a lifetime affinity for underdogs. Mumma is shocked by the flimsiness of the evidence on which Grimes was convicted, and subsequently appalled by the destruction of evidence that would, through DNA testing, have gotten him out of prison years prior to his eventual exoneration.
In the final pages of his book, the author lays out a strong argument for other states establishing commissions similar to that in North Carolina, which no other state has done so far. Because of the work of various innocence projects, and the introduction of DNA testing into the criminal justice system in 1989, exonerations across the US have exceeded 2,000 in less than 30 years. Rachlin continually emphasizes that these convictions are not the result of venality or corruption on the part of prosecutors, police, judges and juries, but of systemic problems involving investigative procedures, funding, and overworked or incompetent legal representation.
States with the most exonerations—Illinois, New York, Texas and California—were not at the top of the list, Rachlin argues, because they were “wrongly convicting the most people. More likely the reverse was true; these were the states doing the best job, searching most responsibly for errors and overturning them.” Ghost of the Innocent Man strongly suggests that it is time for Pennsylvania to establish its own Innocence Inquiry Commission, and to join those states at the top of the list for exonerations.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.