Feature Story | 8-Jun-2023

Changing police culture with stories of wrongful convictions

Behind the Scenes at the Police Training Institute

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – I’m in a room with more than 100 police recruits and I can’t believe what I’m hearing. The future police officers are learning about the devastating consequences of criminal prosecutions gone wrong. These aren’t just abstract stories. More than a dozen exonerees are here to share their stories with the police recruits.

This is the Wrongful Conviction Awareness and Avoidance course, a training program first introduced years ago as an elective class at the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield developed the class with former PTI director Michael Schlosser in 2016. This year, the Illinois State Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board mandated that all Illinois police recruits participate in the four-hour course as part of their standard training. Today is the first class since the mandate was put in place.

Schlosser tells the recruits he took a risk when he first brought the training to PTI seven years ago. Police authorities are sometimes unwilling to consider that wrongful convictions occur, seeing exonerations as a setback rather than a much-needed course correction. When he first discussed the course with a former director of the police training board, he was told to shut it down.

“So I didn’t do the wrongful conviction class anymore,” Schlosser says. “I did a ‘guest speaker’ course that was identical to it. I took a chance on that because it was too important to me. And it was the right thing to do.”

The class always featured at least one exoneree telling their story to the recruits. The current training board understands the importance of the lessons embedded in those stories, Schlosser says.

Today, the recruits hear from several key people at the Illinois Innocence Project: Larry Golden, a founder of the IIP; Marc Beach, a retired police officer who now serves as the director of its the Wrongful Conviction Awareness and Avoidance Program; former executive director John Hanlon; and interim director Stephanie Kamel, who offers some devastating statistics about wrongful convictions.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 3,000 people have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989. This number reflects only those who have had their cases fully reviewed and overturned for serious crimes such as murder and rape. It does not include the many exonerations for lesser felonies and misdemeanors, Kamel says. The mistakes that lead to wrongful convictions not only victimize innocent people, they also allow the actual perpetrators to commit more crimes.

Wrongful convictions also can be deadly for those wrongfully incarcerated, Kamel says.  

“The National Academy of Sciences has taken the exonerations in real life and looked at it scientifically,” she tells the recruits. “According to the statistics, 4% of all death row inmates are innocent. Right now, that means 97 people on death row are innocent.”

Kamel explains how innocent people end up behind bars, often with extended sentences or death sentences. According to the NRE*, bad forensics account for 25% of the wrongful convictions that are later overturned, she says. Eyewitness misidentifications are implicated in 28% of cases. False confessions – the result of confusion, exhaustion, intoxication and/or coercion in police interviews – occur in 12% of the cases. Roughly 27% of exonerees had inadequate defense counsel. Official misconduct occurred in 55% of the wrongful convictions. Such misconduct includes coercion, violence and manufactured, suppressed or destroyed evidence.

Kamel describes the case of Ronald Cotton, who was convicted of rape after the victim confidently but mistakenly picked him out – first in a photograph and later in a line-up – and identified him as the perpetrator. More than a decade later, DNA evidence exonerated Cotton. For many years, he and his accuser, Jennifer Thompson, told the story of her mistake to anyone who could listen. Thompson founded Healing Justice, a nonprofit working on restorative justice.

Kamel also tells the story of Chris Ochoa, who confessed to a rape and murder he hadn’t committed after police coerced and threatened him with the death penalty. Years later, when the real perpetrator confessed to law enforcement, Ochoa maintained his false confession due to fear from the threats made against him and his family during his two 14-hour interrogations. Three years after the real perpetrator came forward, DNA testing exonerated Ochoa and he was released after spending 13 years in prison.

 The exonerees here today also have their own Kafkaesque stories. Sabrina Butler was sentenced to death in Mississippi in 1990 at the age of 18 for a murder she did not commit. John Huffington of Maryland, Ronald Keine of New Mexico, Ray Krone of Arizona and Ralph Wright Jr. of Florida were all sent to death row after wrongful convictions. Others were sentenced to decades or life in prison on convictions related to murder, sexual assault, kidnapping – all of them later overturned.

“We’re not talking about people who were freed because of an error,” Hanlon says when it’s his turn to speak. “We’re talking about people who had nothing to do with the crime for which they were convicted.”

The main event of the day is a presentation by Kristine Bunch, who in 1996 was wrongfully convicted of arson and the murder of her child after a fire broke out in her home. Bunch spent more than 17 years in prison before the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University helped her get the conviction overturned. She describes her bewilderment when it became clear that police suspected her in the death of her own son, how the evidence was improperly analyzed and how her lack of understanding of forensics or police procedure further limited her ability to counter the charges or challenge the interpretation of the evidence.

After her exoneration, Bunch says she had trouble trusting the police. When she first met Michael Schlosser, she thought he might be shady because he was a cop.

“We all have unconscious bias,” she tells the recruits. “We judge people based on appearance. I see this program breaking down barriers. We can all stop making mistakes.”

When her presentation ends, every person in the room – police recruits and exonerees – stands and applauds.


Editor’s notes:
* National Registry of Exonerations – these percentages fluctuate as new data become available.

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