Tragic doesn’t begin to describe being convicted of a crime you didn’t commit by a jury of your supposed peers, and then potentially being locked away for it for the rest of your life. Terrifying doesn’t even begin to describe the thought that a mismanagement of due legal process, whether by police, lawyers or judges, could ultimately condemn you to lose your freedom, or in some cases, condemn you to die. But these men all faced gross injustices at the hands of the legal system, both in the United States and in Canada, losing years of their lives to prison, and appeals, and in some cases coming within hours of being put to death. All for crimes they did not commit. While these shocking cases of wrongful imprisonment may well have ended as happily as they could, what about those innocents languishing away behind bars, hoping one day to be exonerated as well, wishing for a deliverance that may never come.
8. William Dillon — Spent 28 Years in Prison
In 1981 William Dillon was a talented young baseball player days away from his first major league spring training, and a chance to pitch for the Detroit Tigers. Before he ever hit the mound and started throwing fastballs that spring, however, Dillon found himself arrested and charged with beating James Dvorak to death on a Florida beach. Dillon was included as a suspect in the police investigation because five days after the murder took place he showed up at the beach where Dvorak was found. That and the fact that a police dog vaguely identified the scent of the killer’s discarded shirt, which was found on the beach, on Dillon. The most damning evidence against him, even though many witnesses corroborated his alibi of never being on the beach, was the testimony of a jailhouse informant. Looking to reduce time on his own sentence, the convict testified that Dillon confessed to committing the murder to him while awaiting trial. In exchange for the testimony, prosecutors later dropped a pending rape case against the informant. Dillon was convicted, and for 28 years languished in state prison. After numerous unsuccessful appeals over the years a judge finally allowed DNA tests to be taken of the shirt worn by the killer in 2007. The results were conclusive; Dillon had never worn the shirt. He was finally freed from prison and in 2012 Florida Governor Rick Scott offered Dillon an apology and $1.25 million in compensation.
7. Robert Dewey — Spent 17 Years in Prison
Missing the birth of your grandchildren, and especially not being able to attend the funeral of your only son must be heartbreaking moments for any father. For Robert Dewey, these moments must have been shockingly painful because he missed them while locked behind bars in a Colorado prison for a crime he did not commit. Dewey was arrested in the town of Palisade in 1994 as a suspect in the death of 19-year-old Jacie Taylor. Police found Taylor’s partially clothed body in her apartment, having been strangled and raped. When questioned, Dewey told police that he knew Taylor and had been to her apartment before, but maintained he had nothing to do with her death. Unfortunately for Dewey, police recovered a bloodstained shirt in his apartment and used it as the prime piece of evidence to build a case against him. He was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without parole. For 17 years he sat in his cell, missing out on the most precious, and heartbreaking moments of his life. It wasn’t until new DNA technology was used during one of Dewey’s appeals that he was exonerated of the murder and finally released from prison in April of 2012. Fortuitously enough, that same DNA test implicated another man in Jacie Taylor’s murder. His trial is scheduled for next year. Meanwhile, a free man, Dewey is owed nearly $1.2 million in compensation from the state of Colorado, but still asks, “How do you put a price tag on missing your son’s funeral; your only child’s funeral?”
6. Donald Marshall Jr. — Spent 11 Years in Prison
One of the most shocking and gut wrenching cases of criminal injustice in Canadian history, the conviction and imprisonment of Donald Marshall Jr. for the murder of his friend, Sandy Seale, not only had an immense impact on Marshall’s life, but also on the Canadian justice system as a whole. 17 years old when he received a life sentence, Marshall spent 11 years in prison before the RCMP reviewed his case and released him. The province of Nova Scotia’s Court of Appeal cleared Marshall of the charges a year later, and declared him not guilty. The Court of Appeal proceeded, however, to ensure that Marshall knew that “he had contributed to his own conviction and that any miscarriage of justice was more apparent than real.”
The case was notorious enough that it prompted the government of Canada to open a royal commission to investigate the wrongful conviction. 8 years after the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal told Marshall that any miscarriage of justice was perceived and not real the Canadian government released a seven-volume report stating the exact opposite. Marshall was a member of the native Mi’kmaq tribe, and the report determined that systemic racism had contributed to his wrongful imprisonment. The commission blamed all involved in the case: the police, judges, Marshall’s original defense attorneys and the prosecution. The commission forced the RCMP to investigate its own, and exposed the corruption within the justice system. Furthermore, while another man was eventually convicted of the murder Marshall spent 11 years in prison for, it was all a small consolation. Marshall died after a lengthy illness at age 55.
5. James Bain — Spent 35 Years in Prison
James Bain is the man who spend the longest time rotting behind bars while being convicted of a crime he did not commit. In 1974 Bain was convicted of breaking and entering, kidnapping, and the rape of a local 9-year-old boy in Florida. He was sentenced to life in prison and for the next 35 years was transferred between six different prisons across the state. Prior to his conviction, his biggest crime was a few parking tickets. From the time he was arrested and held for two days without knowing what he was even charged with, to the massive holes in the prosecution’s case, Bain continually maintained his innocence. Bain even plead with the court for DNA testing on five different occasions. None were granted. Finally, in 2009, the Innocence Project, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to exonerating innocent prisoners, helped Bain with his case. 8 months later, with the help of the Innocence Project, Bain got his DNA testing and was proven innocent. The state vacated his sentence after James Bain had spent 35 years behind bars. The most remarkable thing about James Bain’s case, however? He’s not angry in the slightest. “How can I be?” he says. “You can’t go back.” In fact, Bain feels that while he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit, his experience has given him a greater power to create change.
4. Juan Rivera — Spent 20 Years in Prison
Imagine being arrested for a crime you knew nothing about, interrogated for four days non-stop without a phone call or a lawyer, subversively being supplied every last detail of said crime by a bullish interrogation team and finally suffering a nervous breakdown. These are the conditions in which Juan Rivera finally confessed to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in Illinois in 1992. Authorities argued Rivera’s confession was voluntary; he maintained the statement he gave that led to his conviction was coerced and given only after he had a mental breakdown; he had been seen beating his head against the wall of his cell, in what was later termed a psychotic episode. Because of the signed confession, Rivera spent the next 20 years in prison. He continued to maintain his innocence, and his story of a coerced confession under mental duress. He was retried three times and was found guilty three times, even though DNA evidence cleared him of guilt all three times. Each conviction was reversed, but it wasn’t until the third reversal that Juan Rivera could no longer be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
3. Guy Paul Morin — Spent 10 Years in Prison
Essentially the poster boy for miscarriage of justice in Canada, Guy Paul Morin is the most famous Canadian to be wrongfully convicted of a crime and spend considerable time behind bars. In October of 1984 nine-year-old Christine Jessop disappeared from her Queensville, Ontario home. Her body was found 56 kilometers away, almost three months later, on Dec. 31. Suspicion immediately turned to 25-year-old Morin, who lived with his parents next door to the Jessops. On October 3, Christine was dropped off at her home after school while both of her parents were out. After determining a timeline that had Christine’s parents arrive home before Morin had the time to return home from work and kill the young girl, police left Morin alone. Briefly. Three months later, police, who were baffled by the crime and under extreme pressure to solve such a high profile murder, returned to question the Jessops, and persuaded them to recant their original timeline of returning home before Morin, leaving room for the possibility that Morin could have indeed abducted their daughter. This crucial change in the Jessops’ story was all the police needed to arrest Guy Paul Morin in April of 1985. Morin was actually acquitted at his first trial in 1986, but the Crown exercised its right to appeal the verdict and ordered a new trial. At his second trial Morin was found guilty of Christine Jessop’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Guy Paul Morin was exonerated of the murder in 1995 after improvements in DNA testing found him not guilty of the crime. An inquiry into the Morin case uncovered evidence of gross police and prosecutorial misconduct, and of misrepresentation of forensic evidence. Meanwhile, Morin was awarded $1.25 million in compensation from the Ontario government.
2. Kirk Bloodsworth — Spent 9 Years in Prison
Not only did Kirk Bloodsworth spend time behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, he spent time on death row. In fact, Bloodsworth is the first person facing the death penalty to be exonerated for his alleged crimes. In 1985 Bloodsworth was convicted of the brutal murder and rape of a 9-year-old girl in Baltimore. The evidence to convict him was flimsy at best; a former neighbor of his said he looked like the suspect who was last seen with the girl, and five other witnesses identified Bloodsworth as the killer. He spent almost nine years in state prison, including two years on death row, before he was set free. He also missed the funeral of his mother while incarcerated. Finally, on his third appeal, and thanks to DNA testing, Bloodsworth was exonerated of all crimes, and the DNA testing actually led police to the real killer. Today Bloodsworth is the director of Advocacy for Witness to Innocence, a nonprofit group that advocates against the death penalty. It is entirely made up of people who were once on death row. In his own words, “if it can happen to an honorably discharged Marine without a criminal record, it can happen to anyone.”
1. Anthony Porter — Spent 16 Years in Prison
The case of Anthony Porter is one of the more stomach churning instances of a miscarriage of justice, particularly because the death penalty was involved. Porter had been convicted of the murders of Marilyn Green and Jerry Hillard, who were both shot to death in Washington Park on the South Side of Chicago on August 15, 1982. Following the shooting, police interviewed William Taylor who was swimming in the park’s pool when the murders took place. Taylor’s story changed numerous times during the investigation. First, Taylor stated he had not seen who committed the crime. Later, he said he had in fact seen Anthony Porter run by after he heard gunshots. After further interrogation, Taylor finally told police that he indeed did see Porter shoot the victims. Even still, there were plenty of other leads presented to the police. The most concrete coming when one of the victim’s mothers gave police the name of a man she believed to be the murderer. Alstory Simon. That made no difference to the Chicago police, however, which promptly arrested Porter based largely on William Taylor’s testimony.
In 1983 Anthony Porter was convicted of murder and condemned to die at the hands of the state of Illinois. For the next 15 years he attempted appeals, but to no avail. It wasn’t until 1998 when a volunteer lawyer had Porter’s IQ tested. He scored a 51, which meant that he was most likely mentally handicapped. Though it was still legal to execute the mentally handicapped, the team of volunteer lawyers that were helping Porter petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court, making an argument that his mental capacity made him incapable of understanding his punishment and because of this, should not be executed.
Fifty hours before Porter was scheduled to die, the court granted a stay of execution, and ordered a hearing to determine whether Porter was mentally aware enough to be executed. It was at this point that Northwestern University Professor David Protess a Private Investigator and a team of journalism students began to re-examine the case. Between December 1998 and January 1999 the team managed to get William Taylor to recant his eyewitness testimony, and managed to get the true killer to confess on camera; None other than Alstory Simon. After Simon’s confession, In February 1999 Anthony Porter was released from prison and all murder charges were dropped.