Thirty years. Thirty years is a career. Thirty years is a man in his prime. Thirty years is the age past which Baby Boomers vowed no one would be trusted. Thirty years is a storied marriage. Thirty Years is how long it took 17th Century Catholics and Protestants to kill 12 million of one another in the eponymous war. Thirty years is longer than half the population of the United States has been alive.
Thirty years is how long Cornelius Dupree Jr. spent confined in the Texas prison system for a crime he did not commit.
nation’s most vile. Mr. Dupree had just about 11,000 days of that.
Mr. Dupree is just a year older than I. When he went to prison, I was blasting through my sophomore year at college, skipping classes, chasing girls, drinking beer and gallivanting through wild Kentucky caves. During the time Mr. Dupree has been fighting for his freedom and, one presumes, fighting merely to survive, I have had two marriages, fathered two sons, come to Jesus, enjoyed success in two careers and, more to the immediate point, gone where I damn well pleased, when I damn well pleased.
In what must be the most gracious and galactic understatement ever recorded, Mr. Dupree said “it’s a joy to be free again” when a Texas judge sent him home after DNA evidence established that he did not commit the crime.*
How had he landed in prison? So far as I can tell, unlike some of the more than 250 defendants who have so far been exonerated by just the Innocence Project alone, there are no allegations of knowing misconduct by police or prosecutors. Instead, as happens more often than folks outside the justice system realize, Mr. Dupree lost more than half his life simply because the crime victim misidentified him. This phenomenon is but a reflection of the larger problem of “eyewitness testimony,” where the sometimes fatal danger lies in the gulf between how reliable such testimony really is and how reliable jurors think it is. (I leave it for you to consider the implications of prosecutors who know the weaknesses of eyewitnesses, yet advocate it as the sine qua non of evidence before jurors and fight to exclude experts on the topic.)
Of course, it is not only the Mr. Duprees of the world who suffer for this, although their suffering is most obvious and acute. The victims whose assailants have gone free, the families of the wrongly convicted, the subsequent victims of those assailants who go unpursued as other pay for their crimes, even the witnesses who learn their flawed testimony sent a man to prison for decades** suffer as well. The universal victim is the honor, trust and dignity of our entire justice system.
* He’s been out of prison on parole since July, but the hearing this week released him from any obligation to the corrections system.
** Please learn about the amazing, tragic and – at last – redemptive story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. She identified him as her rapist and he went to prison for eleven years before DNA evidence proved she was wrong. Cotton managed to forgive Thompson and Thompson managed to forgive herself. Together they have become a single, powerful voice of reason, appearing and writing together about these issues.