The justice system is designed to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The idea that the system might punish the wrong person is a great concern.  One of the great quotes in English law is the so-called Blackstone ratio – “It is better than ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This was published in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in the 1760s. Nonetheless, we know the system does make mistakes. Those mistakes haunt and fascinate the public.

A wrongful conviction can make for popular entertainment. There are dozens of podcasts, documentaries (The Thin Blue Line was an early example; more current examples would be Paradise Lost and West of Memphis both about the West Memphis Three case; or The Central Park Five by Ken Burns), and even dramatized versions of famous cases like When They See Us, which is also about the Central Park Five case, or The Hurricane. But this is not a new phenomenon. The plot of Alexander Dumas’ 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo is also about a wrongfully imprisoned person. 

What Society Owes the Wrongfully Convicted 

Wrongful convictions take a terrible toll on an innocent person. As a society, it is important for us to ask what we owe to those we mistakenly send to prison. In the past few years, there have been three high-profile cases in our area where individuals have been exonerated after long prison terms for wrongful convictions. Kansas and Missouri have reached different answers on what remedies to provide to those who were convicted and served long sentences before being declared innocent. 

Wrongful Convictions in Kansas

Kansas faced two wrongful convictions that sound like plots for bad movies. In December of 2015, Floyd Bledsoe was released from prison after serving 15 years in prison. He was convicted of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl. Initially, Mr. Bledsoe’s older brother confessed to the crime and led the police to the victim’s body. But the brother later changed his story and said he had been blackmailed into confessing by Floyd. A jury believed this story and sent Floyd to prison. Eventually, untested DNA evidence proved the brother, Tom, had been guilty all along. When the DNA evidence came back linking Tom to the case, he wrote a series of confession letters and committed suicide. Floyd was freed, but he lost 15 years of his life to a wrongful conviction.

If it is hard to believe someone was convicted for a crime their brother committed, the case of Richard Anthony Jones is even less believable. He was convicted of aggravated assault after a robbery in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The driver of the getaway vehicle told police he picked up a man named “Ricky” at a nearby apartment. Even though Richard “Ricky” Jones did not have any connection to the apartment, he looked like the suspect. Based on his name and the eyewitness identifications, he was convicted and sentenced to 19 years in state prison. Eventually, Mr. Jones learned of another Kansas inmate named “Ricky”, Ricky Amos. Mr. Amos did have a connection to the apartment complex cited by the getaway driver – his mother lived there. And he had another important, and almost surreal, characteristic. He looked almost identical to Mr. Jones. In fact, once presented with pictures of both men from the time in question, witnesses could not be certain of the actual perpetrator. The case became known as the “Doppelganger case”, and Mr. Jones was freed after serving 17 years in prison.

Wrongful Conviction in Missouri

Togetherness, Closeness, and Connections

The most recent local case is Ricky Kidd. He was convicted, along with a co-defendant, for a double murder which occurred in 1996. There was no physical evidence to linking him to the crime and he had an alibi – he was at the sheriff’s department filling out a gun permit. Nonetheless, he was convicted and served 23 years in prison. Eventually, one witness recanted earlier testimony. A second witness was only 4 years old at the time of the incident and evidence showed police had used improper and suggestive techniques for a child witness. Finally, it was discovered the prosecuting attorney had taken sworn statements from two men who were later identified as the more likely perpetrators. The prosecutor failed to turn the statements over to Mr. Kidd’s attorney. Although there are no plot twists with same-named look-alike suspects or guilty brothers, the biggest difference for Mr. Kidd is where his case took place. Unlike Mr. Bledsoe or Mr. Jones, Mr. Kidd will not see any compensation despite serving nearly a quarter-century in prison for a crime he did not commit. 

Compensating the Victims of Wrongful Conviction

Kansas responded to the issue of wrongful convictions by passing a law in 2018. The Kansas law, which has been hailed as a national example by justice advocates, provides $65,000 compensation for each year of wrongful imprisonment. The law also provides the wrongfully convicted health insurance, access to counseling, financial literacy programs, and housing and tuition services. As a result of the Kansas law, Mr. Bledsoe was awarded $1.03 million and Mr. Jones was awarded $1.1 million. Kansas appears to have taken the issue seriously and recognized the grave challenges which face the wrongfully convicted even after their criminal case is over. These men have no work experience for the time of their incarceration, so they do not have current job skills. They have not been earning a paycheck, so they have not contributed to retirement or social security. They will need help finding a place to live with no credit or employment history. Kansas appears to understand the issues involved and has created a system to help correct the mistakes the justice system has made.

Missouri has a different system for the wrongfully convicted. The financial compensation is $50 per day, which is less than one-third of the Kansas plan. In addition, Missouri does not provide any of the social services Kansas provides. Finally, Missouri only provides compensation if a person’s conviction is overturned because of DNA evidence. Mr. Kidd is not eligible for any benefits because no physical evidence linked him to the scene, so there is no DNA evidence to test. As a result, Mr. Kidd will likely not receive any financial compensation even though he lost 23 years of his life to a wrongful conviction.

Wrongful Conviction Always a Possibility

Persevering or Throwing In the Towel?

The problem of wrongful incarceration does not appear to be going away. Even in a time when DNA evidence promises to provide certainty, there are still many cases where the system gets it wrong. In the cases of Mr. Jones of Mr. Kidd, there was no DNA to test. In Mr. Bledsoe’s case, the state collected DNA but decided against testing it before trial. In many cases, improvements in technology and investigative techniques are revealing more wrongful convictions. Philadelphia elected a reform-minded prosecutor who created a new Conviction Integrity Unit. In the past eighteen months that unit has helped overturn nine wrongful convictions in one city. It is paramount the criminal justice system takes every precaution to try and prevent wrongful conviction. But, as these local cases show us, mistakes can still happen. As a society, it is important we do our best to help those who have suffered as a result.