I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
According to the Innocence Project, it is estimated “that one percent of the U.S. prison population, approximately 20,000 people, are falsely convicted.” Following are the stories, culled from a single week in November 2021, of more than 10 Black men for whom justice came very late and, in some cases, too late.
The Malcolm X Killing
In February 1965, one of leaders of the movement for Black empowerment in the United States was assassinated. Malcom X was about to speak to a crowd of about 400 at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan when a disturbance broke out. A man rushed onto the stage and shot Malcolm X; two other people followed with guns blazing. Malcolm X was hit by 21 bullets.
Talmadge Heyer was shot in the leg by a security guard and arrested at the scene. Within a week, Muhammad A. Aziz (also known as Norman Butler) and Khalil Islam (aka Thomas Johnson) were also picked up by police who said they had been identified as shooters. The three men were members of the Nation of Islam, a group with which Malcolm X has fallen out.
At trial, Heyer admitted to being part of a plot to kill Malcolm X, but said the other two men, who claimed to be innocent, had nothing to do with the murder. All three were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Aziz and Islam continued to profess their innocence and supporters probed the crime and found a lot of sloppy police work and evidence withheld from the trial. Also, a deathbed letter turned up from a police officer who alleged that the New York Police Department and the FBI had a hand in the murder.
The Manhattan District Attorney took an interest in the case and investigated. The result was that on November 18, 2021 New York State Supreme Court Justice Ellen Biben quashed the convictions against Aziz and Islam. Both men spent about 20 years in prison and the real criminals got away with murder.
The Groveland Four
In 1949, four young Black men were convicted of raping a 17-year-old white girl in Groveland, Florida. At the time, there were doubts about the testimony of Norma Padgett, and medical examination found no sign that a rape had occurred, although this evidence was withheld from the jury. Police sealed the guilt finding by torturing the accused into giving false confessions.
Ernest Thomas, one of the accused, escaped from custody but was killed in the manhunt that followed.
Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin were handed the death penalty, but they were shot by Sheriff Willis McCall while being transported; Shepherd died and Irvin was wounded. McCall claimed self defence and suffered no consequences.
In a second trial, Irvin again got a death sentence but this was commuted to life imprisonment, which is the same sentence that Charles Greenlee got. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012. Irvin was paroled in 1968 and died the following year.
It took almost 70 years for the truth to emerge; the four Black youths were completely innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. In 2019, they received a posthumous state pardon.
The final chapter was written on November 22, 2021 when Circuit Court Judge Heidi Davis in Lake County, Florida vacated the convictions of Walter Irvin and Charles Greenlee and dismissed the indictments of Samuel Shepherd and Ernest Thomas.
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Vindication After 43 Years in Prison
Kevin Strickland was 19 when he went into prison, now he's 62 and a free man for the first time in 43 years.
A triple homicide took place in Kansas City, Missouri in April 1978. A witness, Cynthia Douglas, was high on cognac and marijuana at the time of the murders and did not identify Strickland as a shooter. Later, detectives pressured her into identifying Strickland as a gunman because his hair resembled that of a man she had described. Two men she identified pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and spent 10 years in prison.
Strickland, an African-American, professed his innocence but was convicted by an all-white jury. His sentence was 50 years without the possibility of parole.
The two men convicted of the crime said Strickland was not involved and Cynthia Douglas tried on numerous occasions to recant her identification of him. There was no physical evidence that placed Strickland at the scene of the crime. But the Missouri justice system was deaf to any and all pleas.
An investigation by The Kansas City Star in 2020 finally broke through the wall of indifference towards this man's plight and a court hearing was held. The state's Attorney General stuck to the oft-repeated claim that Strickland got a fair trial and was found guilty. But on November 23, 2021 Senior Judge James Welsh ruled that Strickland's conviction be set aside.
The first thing the freed man did after 15,487 days behind bars, was visit his mother's grave.
The Writer and the Rape
In 1999, writer Alice Sebold published a memoir in which she described being raped by a Black man while she was a student at Syracuse University. The book, Lucky, sold more than a million copies.
She identified Anthony Broadwater as her attacker five months later when she saw him in the street, although she was later unable to pick him out in a police line up; however, on the witness stand, she identified him as her assailant. The prosecution used hair analysis, since discarded as junk science, to seal his fate and he was sent to prison.
Broadwater professed his innocence and was denied parole five times because he refused to say he was guilty of a crime he did not commit. After 16 years Broadwater was released from prison in 1998 but remained on New York State's sex offender list, which left him unable to find a good job.
Meanwhile, Tim Mucciante was working on a film adaptation of Lucky and he began to feel uneasy about Broadwater's conviction. He hired a private investigator who quickly found holes in the state's case against the alleged rapist. This led to a re-examination of the file and, eventually, to November 22, 2021 when Anthony Broadwater broke down and wept as New York State Supreme Court Justice Gordon Cuffy vacated the convictions against him.
Alice Sebold apologized for the central role she played in a miscarriage of justice: “I am grateful that Mr. Broadwater has finally been vindicated, but the fact remains that 40 years ago, he became another young Black man brutalized by our flawed legal system.”
And, Tyrone Clarke can be added to the list of African-American men wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. On November 24, 2021, Clarke left the North Central Correctional Institute in Gardner, Massachusetts after incarceration for almost 50 years. This followed his exoneration for a rape he always claimed he did not commit and after his accuser said she may have identified the wrong man.
The above stories cover a brief moment of time, just one week in November 2021, that expose America's broken justice system. The by-no-means-exhaustive search uncovered injustices that fall most heavily upon people of color.
Here are some numbers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:
- “One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to be sentenced to prison, compared one out of six Latino boys; one out of 17 white boys;
- “As of October 2016, there have been 1,900 exonerations of the wrongfully accused, 47 percent of the exonerated were African-American;
- “84 percent of Black adults say white people are treated better than Black people by police; 63% of white adults agree based on 2019 research on police relations; and
- “Black people make up 13.4% of the population, but make up 22 percent of fatal police shootings.”
- According to Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz there is no systemic racism in American policing.
- “How Many Innocent People Are in Prison?” Innocence Project, undated.
- “The Groveland Four (1949), Samuel Momodu, blackpast.org, June 28, 2019.
- “The 'Vindicating' Exoneration of 2 Men Convicted of Malcolm X's Murder.” Zaheer Ali, Time Magazine, November 19, 2021.
- “Kevin Strickland Freed After Judge Vacates Conviction in 1978 Triple Murders.” Luke Nozicka, Kansas City Star, November 23, 2021.
- “Alice Sebold Apologizes to Man Cleared of 1981 Rape Featured in Her Memoir.” Associated Press, November 30, 2021.
- “After Nearly 50 Years Behind Bars, Tyrone Clarke’s Rape Conviction Was Dropped and He’s Been Set Free.” Arianna MacNeill, Boston Globe, November 24, 2021.
- “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor