When I heard the story of Dean Cage, I thought to myself, Could this happen to me?
Cage is a Chicago man who spent 14 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. What's worse is that there was no evidence linking Cage to the crime. He had no prior convictions and, in fact, had never even been arrested.
In 1994, a 15-year-old girl identified Cage as the man who attacked her from behind and dragged her to a secluded basement, where he sodimized, beat and performed oral sex on her.
According to CNN, which had a report on Cage Monday and Tuesday:
A few days after the attack, police received an anonymous tip: The composite sketch made from the victim's description of her assailant resembled a man at a butcher shop. Police took the victim there, and she identified Dean. She later testified that his voice sounded similar to her attacker's.
Cage had an alibi. His fiancée testified that he was sleeping in bed with her at the time of the attack. Despite the lack of physical evidence, Cage was convicted and sentenced to 40 years.
"At the most basic level there is a desire to get someone for these crimes. That, combined with the hysteria around black men and crime can lead to wrongful convictions," Eric Ferrero, director of communications for the Innocence Project told AOL Black Voices in an interview.
Rapists, especially child rapists, aren't looked upon kindly in prison. In addition to being away from his fiancée, his soon-to-be stepdaughters and his three sons, Cage witnessed rapes and beatings in prison.
Cage, though deflated, refused to give up. He filed appeals and wrote to the New York City–based Innocence Project. The group used DNA found at the scene to prove that Cage was innocent. He was released from prison last year and is trying to begin his life anew.
The figures compiled by the Innocence Project are staggering: There have been 245 people cleared after conviction through the use of DNA evidence since 1989. Freedom has been won for the innocent in 34 states. The average age of those convicted was 26, and like Cage, they served an average of 12 years behind bars before being released.
And here is the figure that no one should be shocked about: 146 of the 245 people who have been cleared using DNA evidence are African-American.
"Seventy percent of the 245 people who were wrongly convicted are people of color. Sixty percent were African-American. By now, everyone knows that African-Americans are over-incarcerated. The prison population is 40 to 45 percent African-American, which is wildly disproportionate, but the percentage of those exonerated is even higher," said Ferrero.
The main issue in Cage's case was victim misidentification.
According to the Innocence Project:
Eyewitness misidentification testimony was a factor in 74 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the United States, making it the leading cause of these wrongful convictions. At least 40 percent of these eyewitness identifications involved a cross racial identification (race data is currently only available on the victim, not for nonvictim eyewitnesses). Studies have shown that people are less able to recognize faces of a different race than their own.
"It can and does happen to anyone but it disproportionately happens to African-American men who are innocent. . A common scenario is an African-American man is misidentified by a witness and nobody believes him when he says he is innocent," said Ferrero.
Another factor in Cage's conviction was that the officer handling the rape investigation was also responsible for handling the eyewitness identification process. Police should use blind identification, where the officer handling the eyewitness identification is not involved in the case, according to the Innocence project.
Other factors in false convictions are improper scientific evidence, the use of informants and the use of false confessions and incriminating statements. The Innocence Project suggests that all interrogations be taped.
These do not seem like very difficult reforms to adopt. If they help to prevent just one innocent man from spending 14 years of his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit, they would be worth enacting.
"Individually and collectively these cases are a mandate for reform. There are ways to conduct lineups that 30 years of science tells us can help minimize mistakes," said Ferrero.
While Cage sat in prison fighting for his life and his freedom, the real rapist was loose on the streets of Chicago. Did he victimize some other young girl? Did he graduate to murder? How many young women became victims of sexual assault because the wrong man was in prison?
This is too important to get wrong. The number of wrongful convictions shows this is not a fluke. The Innocence Project is flooded with so many cases that it takes time for them to get to them all. Simple reforms must be adopted by every jurisdiction across the country.
Cage was optimistic upon his release.
"If you believe in something, fight for it," Dean said the day he was released, adding, "The truth will come out in the end."
Let's make sure the truth comes out in the beginning. If it could happen to Dean Cage, it could happen to me. That means it could happen to you too.