Pubdate: Fri, 30 Apr 2004
Source: Austin Chronicle (TX)
Column: Naked City
Copyright: 2004 Austin Chronicle Corp.
Author: Rita Radostitz
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


More than 150 people attended the National Innocence Conference at the 
Austin Hilton Convention Center Hotel last weekend. Attendees from more 
than 25 states, Australia, and Canada included attorneys, journalists, 
students, professors, and people who were incarcerated for crimes they did 
not commit. Despite the diversity of geography and profession, they shared 
a common passion: Innocent people should not be incarcerated, and the 
criminal justice system must be challenged both to prevent and rectify the 

The conference opened on Friday night with a panel of people involved in 
the Tulia drug sting fiasco. Tonya White described how she was indicted for 
selling narcotics to an undercover police officer, though she had 
incontrovertible proof that she could not have done so - she was cashing a 
check at a bank in Oklahoma City at the exact time that she was supposedly 
selling drugs in Texas. White was one of the lucky ones - she never spent a 
day in jail. But, as Vanita Gupta, the attorney from the NAACP Legal 
Defense Fund who represented the Tulia defendants, explained, more than 10% 
of the African-American population of Tulia did spend time in jail for 
crimes they did not commit.

The Tulia case is an example of how the system can be corrupted by one bad 
cop. But, as Larry Marshall, legal director of the Center on Wrongful 
Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, explained, most 
wrongful convictions are not the result of bad faith, but happen because we 
are all "prisoners of our own perspective." Marshall denounced "the degree 
to which so many people can be sincerely convinced that they are right, 
when, objectively, they are wrong. ... It is not that they know everything 
and don't care, but rather that they really don't know everything."

It is that process of re-examining the case with a different perspective 
that, according to Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in 
New York, can lead to uncovering wrongful convictions. Although Scheck is 
known for his work in DNA exonerations, DNA is present in a very small 
portion of criminal cases, and many other factors - such as mistaken 
eyewitness identification and false confessions - account for conviction of 
the innocent.

While it may be hard for many to imagine the pain of being incarcerated for 
a crime that one did not commit, many of the conference participants 
understand it firsthand. Marshall urged attendees to "use the lessons from 
[that] pain to prevent this from happening in the future."
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