“This is a system that comes out of slavery and perpetuates slavery … We are swimming in the mythology that [it] is designed to get to the truth.”
For those who believe that innocent people should be able to easily overturn their convictions, Daniel Medwed’s new book, Barred: Why the Innocent Can’t Get out of Prison, will be an eye-opener. Published by Basic Books, Barred debuted this week at Grub Street, a nonprofit literary arts organization, and will have its Cambridge launch on Thursday, Sept. 29, at 7pm at Porter Square Books.
In Barred, Medwed, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law, an innocence advocate, and the legal analyst for WGBH, examines the numerous procedural rules in our criminal legal system that obstruct prisoners seeking to prove their innocence. He shows how these rules are almost as iron-clad as the cages in which those prisoners are housed.
Medwed takes readers through graphic stories and analyses as he dissects nightmares for those who are innocent. He aims to reach a general public, and while, at times, his language needs a bit of deciphering (i.e “the writ of error coram nobis” or presenting new evidence that can upend a conviction isn’t easy), he is mostly successful at making difficult concepts accessible.
Consider how the author paraphrases a gruesome ruling in 2014 by the Michigan Supreme Court. Medwed says the court clarified that “a claim of actual innocence, even a strong one, [is] not an adequate legal basis for withdrawing a guilty plea.” Medwed is clear in suggesting that the criminal legal system has little interest in innocence, and “values finality and efficiency over accuracy.”
He also shows how easy it is to convict the innocent due to: prosecutors not turning over evidence they collect that can be favorable for the defense; the pressure to take a plea deal instead of going to trial; and “rigid procedures that squash access to postconviction DNA testing.” From there, Medwed discusses the need to reorient prosecutors away from “winning convictions” and toward achieving justice, plus he focuses on the Supreme Court’s lack of action on innocence claims.
Dirty cops do not figure prominently as a barrier to justice in Medwed’s book, but he mentions them in several cases, among them one most followed in Massachusetts: Sean Ellis. Ellis was the subject of the award-winning Netflix docu-series, Trial Four. The series, directed by Remy Burkel, tells the story of how he gained full exoneration from the accusation of killing Boston police officer John J. Mulligan. In the series, Ellis and his attorney Rosemary Scapicchio fight for his freedom and expose a racist, corrupt system.
Another Massachusetts case mentioned by Medwed is that of Darrell Jones who was wrongfully convicted and served 32 years behind bars. With Jones’ case, Medwed also notes police misconduct, as well as the problems that innocent people encounter when courts rely on informants and “dubious eye witnesses,” and overlook racial bias in the jury. Such discrimination in the courtroom can produce wrongful convictions, among other harms, reports the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in its extensive report, Race and the Jury. EJI was founded by renowned attorney Bryan Stevenson, an advocate for unjustly convicted death-row prisoners.
Per the Boston Scope, a Northeastern University student publication, Jones did not receive a fair trial the first time around “because detectives tampered with the video recording, his lawyer was ineffective, and jurors made comments that he must be guilty because he is Black.” Medwed reports that Jones was “inexplicably” put through the “rigamarole of another trial” by zealous prosecutors before a jury deliberated for two hours and acquitted him.
Medwed points out that not only overturning a conviction but obtaining parole is problematic for innocent prisoners. Parole boards, often stacked with members from law enforcement backgrounds, make their mantra accept responsibility for your crime. Medwed touches on how absurd this is for those who claim innocence. The dilemma for an innocent prisoner becomes, “Stick to your guns and maintain your innocence,” or “Feign guilt to boost your chance at parole.”
Medwed notes that since 1989, “postconviction DNA testing has exonerated 375 innocent prisoners in the United States.” While more than 2000 others have overturned their convictions without this tool, he cautions that “innocent Black defendants are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than whites.”
I spoke with Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project which fights to correct and prevent wrongful convictions throughout New England, who extended Medwed’s analysis about racism in the system. In a phone interview, she said, “There is no question that people have set up significant procedural bars to freedom but the reason why is that people have set them up.” She believes that the criminal legal apparatus is “a system of control, aiming to control people who are seen as undesirable or to be feared.”
“This is a system that comes out of slavery and perpetuates slavery,” she said, pointing out, “We are swimming in the mythology that [it] is designed to get to the truth.” Natarajan added, “I would say, even if you were to remove the procedures, the people administering the system would administer it in the same way.”
Natarajan will join Medwed at Porter Square and engage him in a conversation about Barred. The Prison Book Program—a Quincy-based nonprofit that donates books and audiotapes to people behind bars—is co-sponsoring the event and will provide a brief presentation about its mission as well.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.