Chapter 1 The Problem of Wrongful Conviction

JurisdictionNorth Carolina

Chapter 1 The Problem of Wrongful Conviction

A. What Is a "Wrongful Conviction"?

We must be clear about our subject matter. What, precisely, is a "wrongful conviction"? Agreeing about the meaning of a "conviction" should not be difficult; we take that term to mean a judicial determination that an individual is guilty of a crime. Defining a "wrongful" conviction, on the other hand, is not so straightforward. For example, well into the 20th century African Americans in several states who sought equal access to public accommodations were convicted of crimes and punished under Jim Crow laws that have since been condemned as both morally offensive and unconstitutional. It might be argued that such convictions, although lawful when rendered, were inherently unjust and hence wrongful. Alternatively, we might not quarrel in principle with legislation that makes designated conduct a crime, such as laws prohibiting the use of controlled substances, but nevertheless recoil at their enforcement in exceptional cases, such as when an acutely ill individual in a state that does not authorize the medicinal use of marijuana ingests that substance to alleviate the disease's pernicious symptoms. Whether a conviction obtained under such circumstances should be considered wrongful is debatable, but our focus will be elsewhere. We will be examining cases in which factually innocent people are convicted of crimes.

Yet even this more restricted category requires further definition. We now must consider what it means to be innocent of a crime. In this context, which of the following cases should be classified as wrongful convictions?

Jesse and Stephen Boorn. Russell Colvin, the brother-in-law of Jesse and Stephen Boorn as a result of having married their sister Sally, disappeared without explanation from Manchester, Vermont in 1812. It was widely known that Jesse and Stephen disliked Colvin, and his disappearance followed a heated argument involving the men. Years later, in 1819, a relative of the Boorns reported that Colvin had visited him in a series of dreams in which Colvin revealed that he had been murdered. The apparition disclosed where his remains had been buried on the Boorns' farm. Follow-up investigations led to the discovery at the dreamed burial site of personal items that apparently belonged to Colvin and, at another site, of bones. With community interest rekindled, Jesse Boorn was jailed and an arrest warrant issued for Stephen, who had relocated in New York. After Jesse's jail cellmate claimed that Jesse had implicated Stephen as well as the brothers' father in Colvin's murder, Jesse confessed to participating in the killing and identified his brother as the principal. Although Jesse later recanted his confession, Stephen returned to Vermont where he, too, confessed to killing Colvin although he maintained that he struck the lethal blow amidst mutual combat. Both of the brothers were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, but Jesse's sentence later was commuted to life imprisonment. The publicity inspired by the case, and particularly by the dream visitation that had triggered the renewed investigation, included a New York Evening Post article that fortuitously came to the attention of a man in New York City who was acquainted with a Russell Colvin who had frequently spoken about his Vermont heritage. Colvin thereafter was located in New Jersey, very much alive. He was duped into returning to Vermont in December 1819, just three weeks prior to Stephen Boorn's scheduled date with the gallows. With this turn of events, both Jesse's and Stephen's murder convictions were vacated.1

Kirk Bloodsworth. A nine-year-old girl was found dead in Fontana Village, a small town in Baltimore County, Maryland, on July 25, 1984. Her skull had been crushed, and she had been strangled and sexually assaulted. Five witnesses later testified that they had seen Kirk Bloodsworth with the girl shortly before her murder. Police officers who questioned Bloodsworth reported that he had told them that he had done something terrible that would threaten his marriage and had mentioned a bloody rock, a previously unpublicized item of evidence that had been found at the murder scene. Although he denied having anything to do with the child's death, Bloodsworth was found guilty of rape and capital murder in 1985. He was sentenced to death. His conviction was overturned on appeal because the prosecution had failed to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence. He was convicted once again at his 1987 retrial and was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment. Following nearly nine years of incarceration, Bloodsworth was released from prison and pardoned in 1993 after DNA testing revealed that he was not the source of the semen found in the girl's body. A decade later, the DNA found in the victim was matched to another man, Kimberly Shay Ruffner, who was serving a prison sentence for other crimes. Ruffner pled guilty to the child's murder in 2004.2

Andrea Yates. A horrified nation learned in June 2001 that five children, ranging between six months and seven years of age, had been drowned in a bathtub in their home in Clear Lake, Texas, just outside of Houston. Their mother, Andrea Yates, had a lengthy history of mental illness and suffered from severe depression. She admitted to having filled the bathtub and then holding each of her struggling children under water until they died. She summoned the police by making a 911 call and then telephoned her husband Rusty, who was at work, and told him to come home. When he asked whether anyone was hurt, she responded, "The kids.... All of them." Yates was charged with three counts of capital murder (the district attorney elected not to join all five children's cases at the trial). She entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity which, under Texas law, required her to prove that when she drowned her children she suffered from severe mental illness and, as a result, did not know that her actions were wrong. The trial jury heard from numerous mental health experts who agreed that Yates was psychotic when she immersed her children in the bath water. She reportedly believed that by killing her children she was saving them from Satan's influence and perishing in the fires of hell. Four psychiatrists and a psychologist testified that, in their opinion, her mental illness prevented her from knowing that her actions were wrong. Dr. Park Dietz, the prosecution's sole mental health expert, concurred that Yates was psychotic. He disagreed that she failed to understand that drowning her children was wrong. On cross-examination, Dr. Dietz testified that shortly before Yates had acted, the television show "Law & Order," which Yates regularly watched, featured a woman suffering from post-partum depression who had been found insane after drowning her children in a bathtub. At the conclusion of more than three weeks of testimony, the jury took less than four hours to find Yates guilty as charged. The same jury deliberated just 35 minutes before rejecting the prosecution's call for the death penalty. Yates was sentenced to life imprisonment. Three years later, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed Yates's convictions. The reversals were based on the revelation that Dr. Dietz's testimony about the "Law & Order" episode was erroneous — in fact, no show had aired portraying a depressed woman drowning her children and being acquitted by reason of insanity. The court concluded that this misinformation was likely to have influenced the jury's verdict. At her 2006 retrial, a jury found Yates not guilty by reason of insanity.3

Francesco Caruso. In February 1927, Francesco Caruso was convicted following trial in a Brooklyn court of the intentional, deliberate, and premeditated murder of a physician, Dr. Pendola, who had attended to his ill son. Under New York law then in effect, Caruso was sentenced to death. The facts supporting Caruso's first-degree murder conviction are described in People v. Caruso, 159 N.E. 390 (N.Y. 1927).

Francesco Caruso, an illiterate Italian, 35 years old, came to this country about 1911. He worked as a laborer, and in the early part of 1927 was living with his wife and six small children in an apartment in Brooklyn. On Friday, February 11th, one of these children, a boy of six, was ill with a sore throat. That day and the next he treated the boy with remedies bought at a drug store. The child grew worse, and at 10 o'clock of the night of the 12th he sent for a Dr. Pendola, who had been recommended to him, but with whom he was not acquainted....

Some time between 10:30 and 11 in the evening Dr. Pendola arrived. The child had diptheria (sic). Caruso was sent out to buy some antitoxin, and, when he returned, the doctor administered it. He then gave Caruso another prescription with instructions as to its use, and left promising to return in the morning.

Caruso watched the child all night, giving remedies every half hour. 'About 4 o'clock in the morning,' he testified, 'my child was standing up to the bed, and asked me to, he he says, 'Papa' he said, 'I am dying.' I say that time, I said, 'You don't die.' I said, 'I will help you every time.' The same time that child he will be crazy — look like crazy, that time — don't want to stay any more inside. All I can do, I keep my child in my arms, and I held him in my arms from 4 o'clock until 8 o'clock in the morning. After 8 o'clock in the morning the poor child getting worse — the poor child in the morning he was' — (slight interruption in the testimony while the defendant apparently stops to overcome his emotion). 'The poor child that time, and he was asking me, 'Papa,' he said, 'I want to go and sleep.' So I said, 'All right, Giovie, I will put you in the sleep.' I take my Giovie, and I put him in the bed, and he started to sleep, to wait until the doctor came, and the doctor he never came. I waited from 10 o'clock, the doctor he never came.'


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