“Innocence Lost in New Jersey”
“Innocence Lost in New Jersey” tells the stories of 25 New Jerseyans who were wrongfully convicted of rapes and murders they did not commit. Combined, these innocent men and woman spent a total of 228 years behind bars before the truth came out.
The report further found an additional 12 New Jerseyans who were possibly or probably innocent of the crimes for which they spent much of their lives in prison, including one who remains on death row.
“Innocence Lost in New Jersey” is not a comprehensive study of every innocent person convicted in New Jersey, but rather a snapshot of what can go wrong and some of the consequences of that broken system on the real lives of innocent men and women.
The report found eight major causes leading to wrongful conviction in New Jersey:
Prosecutorial and police misconduct
Defense attorney incompetence
Junk science and crime lab incompetence
Presumption of guilt
Focus on winning, not justice
For each factor, the report details concrete examples of New Jersey cases where these errors cost innocent people years of their freedom, and other cases of individuals who may very well be innocent but are still waiting for the truth to come out:
Mistaken eyewitness testimony helped send David Shepherd, Nate Walker, McKinley Cromedy, and Earl Barryman to prison in New Jersey – all were innocent.
George De Los Santos was convicted in New Jersey based in part on testimony that a federal district judge said, “reeked of perjury.”
John Dixon’s attorney actually told him not to get a DNA test – a test that later exonerated him, but not until after he spent 12 years behind bars for a rape he did not commit.
The attorney for Earl Berryman and Michael Bunch never pursued conflicting testimony given by the only witness.
The lawyer for Nate Walker never requested a blood test that would have proven his innocence.
A Cumberland County family had to hire their own private forensics expert to determine the truth about their loved one’s death because the expert provided by the state didn’t determine the cause of death correctly.
In Atlantic City, Police Officer Jim Andros was indicted for suffocating his wife. Fortunately, just before the case went to trial, independent experts found Mrs. Andros died from bleeding in her coronary artery as the result of a rare heart condition. A police officer was nearly put on trial for murder because of this mistake.
Larry Peterson is finally free after spending 17 years in prison – the prosecution sought the death sentence, but the jury voted for life in prison. DNA testing that Peterson fought for proved that none of the evidence at the scene matched his DNA. The hairs that a state forensics expert claimed belonged to Peterson really belong to the victim. Semen and scrapings from the victims’ fingernails do not match Peterson and instead match an unknown male. There is no physical, DNA tested, evidence that ties Peterson to the crime scene. In May 2006, prosecutors dropped the charges against him.
There is a lot right with New Jersey’s criminal justice system – but there is much room for improvement. This report begins to shed light on some of the most troubling areas and puts a human face on the very real consequences of the justice system’s mistakes. Implicit in this story of a broken system is a warning – New Jersey is at risk of executing an innocent person. A death penalty plagued by the problems detailed in “Innocence Lost” will inevitably, someday, make a mistake that can’t be undone.