Sometimes DNA evidence is the reason these men are freed. Other times, it's witnesses who recant their testimony, false witness identification and coerced confessions.
The latest example of this comes from New York, where Jabbar Collins, 37 (pictured left), was released from prison after spending 16 years behind bars for murder. Collins was convicted of killing landlord Rabbi Abraham Pollack.
Pollack was shot six times while trying to collect rent; however, prosecutors conveniently forgot that the key witness recanted his testimony before the trial.
The AP writes:
Kevin Richardson, an executive assistant district attorney, said the office had not learned until May that the key witness who incriminated Jabbar Collins in the 1994 murder of landlord Abraham Pollack had recanted before the trial. Richardson said the office could not retry the case because of the loss of the witness testimony and physical evidence that has been destroyed.
A federal judge called the prosecution's handling of the case "shameful." Unfortunately, with people's freedom and lives at stake, cases like this happen all too frequently. As a result, Collins has missed a huge chunk of his three kids' - ages 18, 20 and 22 - lives. He might not be free if he hadn't spent up to 18 hours a day working on his own case.
"I can't even describe how good I feel right now," Collins told the Daily News, after being loudly greeted by relatives. "I'm dream-walking. ... I'm just happy to be home."
The Innocence Project has helped to free 254 men, using DNA evidence. These men spent an average of 13 years behind bars. About 70 percent were members of a minority group.
Of the 254 cases overturned using DNA evidence, witness misidentification played a role in more than 75 percent of the cases.
Witness misidentification often has to do with the way law enforcement handles witnesses. Lineups or photo arrays must be done properly, and police and prosecutors should not pressure victims or witnesses in to choosing a suspect they think committed the crime.
In addition, the use of jailhouse informants or people looking to lighten their sentence or receive some other form of compensation in exchange for testifying against someone else is always dangerous.
I'm not sure why the witness in Collins' case recanted, but prosecutors had an obligation to disclose that information so that it could be used in Collins' trial. Collins' attorney also said that the witnesses may have had some incentive to testify against Collins, but that information was not revealed as required.
"None of the evidence showed that [witnesses] would have had reasons to lie.....was presented to the defense," said Collins' lawyer Joel Ruddin.
As always in these cases, there are now three victims. The person who the crime was committed against, the wrongly accused and the public who was put at risk because the real perpetrator was left at large. There are reforms that can limit the abuse of witness identification. With so much at stake, prosecutors must get this right.
Collins' lawyer said prosecutorial misconduct is to blame and that his client is seriously considering a lawsuit.
Luckily, Collins is still a young man. Although he remains "disgusted" by what happened to him, he said he wants to go to law school and help people in similar situations.
"Today is a day for rejoicing," he said. "I had years of misery and years of sorrow. So today, I just want to enjoy myself and my family."
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