In 2017, Ledura Watkins, 61, was freed after serving more than 41 years in a Michigan prison for a murder he did not commit. This was the longest incarceration before exoneration in United States history. Other than his record-breaking incarceration, Watkins’s case was sadly familiar to students of wrongful conviction, a terrible miscarriage of justice that never should have happened.
Watkins was convicted with just a hair of physical evidence, literally. One hair found on the victim reportedly had 15 similarity points with Watkins’s hair; such forensic analysis later was shown to be unreliable. A witness who said he committed the murder with Watkins later admitted that he lied. Police reports that would have discredited the witnesses against Watkins, reports that identified another suspect who failed a lie detector test, never were disclosed to Watkins’s defense, as required of police and prosecutors.
Watkins is one of 139 innocent defendants who were exonerated in the United States in 2017, according to a new report by the National Registry of Exonerations. That brings the total to 2,161 exonerations since 1989 — and that’s only the visible tip of a much larger mass of wrongfully convicted defendants who are never cleared.
I started learning about wrongful convictions 13 years ago, when I was attorney general of Ohio. I received a phone call from Mark Godsey, a former prosecutor and director of the Ohio Innocence Project. He told me that his client, Clarence Elkins — who was in his sixth year of a life sentence for the murder of his mother-in-law and rape of his niece — did not commit those crimes. I listened but found Godsey’s claim implausible.
Every prosecutor is obliged to consider new evidence of innocence and seek to correct injustices, not just win and defend convictions. But, as a 30-year lawyer who had prosecuted felonies, a legislator who helped craft Ohio’s death penalty law, and an official who supported tough-on-crime policies, I didn’t believe our criminal justice system made mistakes of this magnitude.
I was wrong. After our office examined this case, I became convinced Elkins was innocent. DNA testing of evidence eventually identified the real perpetrator, Earl Mann, a seasoned felon living near the crime scene. Elkins was released and exonerated; Mann pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without parole.
The Elkins case shook my foundational beliefs about criminal justice. The fact that an innocent man with no criminal record was wrongly convicted of murder astounded me. I thought — I hoped — that Elkins was one in a million. Since then, I’m sorry to report, I’ve learned of many similar cases.
As a former prosecutor, I am most concerned about the behavior of law enforcement. On that score, the exonerations in 2017 include good news and bad news.
The bad news first: Eighty-four of the innocent defendants exonerated in 2017, including Ledura Watkins, were victims of misconduct by police, prosecutors, or both. That’s a record for a single year — a deeply distressing record considering that misconduct, by its very nature, is usually hidden. And it most often remains hidden, especially among the many wrongful convictions that we never discover.
The good news is that an increasing number of elected prosecutors around the country have created “conviction integrity units” in their offices, 33 as of the end of last year. These prosecutorial units are dedicated to identifying wrongful convictions and remedying them (to the extent possible), and preventing these terrible errors. They were involved in 42 exonerations in 2017.
Better yet, 16 exonerations in 2017 included cooperation between conviction integrity units and organizations that represent innocent defendants who have been convicted of crimes — such as the Ohio Innocence Project that approached me about Clarence Elkins in 2005, and dozens of similar groups around the country.
That, too, is a record. But if nothing else happens, these records won’t amount to much. Thirty-three conviction integrity units is a drop in the bucket in a country with thousands of prosecutorial offices. Forty-two exonerations pale in comparison to the thousands of innocent defendants whose wrongful convictions have not come to light.
Let’s hope this is only a start.
There’s a long way to go, but I’m optimistic. The pace of change is accelerating. In 10 or 20 years, these reforms might become the rule for prosecutors across the country. If that happens, we will identify — and free — many more innocent defendants who are in prison. Better yet, we will prevent even more from ever suffering that fate.
Jim Petro, former Ohio Attorney General and co-author of “False Justice – Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent,” is on the advisory board of the National Registry of Exonerations.