(FinalCall.com) – Caramad Conley lost a lot while he was in prison the last 18 years, things he could never get back, like his youth or time with his father, who died after becoming terminally ill.
He could not attend a birthday celebration for his dad, nor was he allowed to make an emergency phone call as was prison policy. He missed his dad’s burial service.
“This affected me greatly. It truly was the lowest point in my life while I was there. The callousness of the system even at the moment of a family member’s ‘eminent’ death, still affects me,” Mr. Conley said.
The ordeal was even more tragic because Mr. Conley was innocent of the two first degree murder convictions that sent him to prison for 12 life sentences.
At age 26 he began serving two life without parole terms in 1994 for a drive-by shooting that claimed the lives of two people and injured approximately a dozen others.
He was innocent but there was nothing he could do about it until the Innocence Project, which investigates shaky convictions, and attorneys for two wrongfully convicted men stumbled upon hidden evidence in his case.
While researching another case, the attorneys discovered Earl Sanders and Napoleon Hendrix, two well-respected Black detectives in the San Francisco Bay Area, withheld a videotaped confession that could prove innocence and there was a secret payment fund for witnesses.
The lawyers found Det. Sanders hid that he’d paid thousands of dollars to Clifford Polk, the main witness against Mr. Conley.
In December 2010, a judge ruled the detectives knew Mr. Polk was lying and knowingly orchestrated Mr. Conley’s conviction. Mr. Polk recanted his testimony, though the payouts were enough to overturn the conviction.
Caramad Conley walked out of prison January 12, as 40-year-old who was free, but, he had some insight. “This is about the system and I’ve come to the conclusion and rationalized in my mind that there are going to be people that are going to be victims of this injustice but that’s the only way that true justice can actually be served,” he told The Final Call.
Mr. Conley relied on constant prayer and study while in prison.
“I actually asked Allah, I asked God, if I had to be convicted to use me as a tool basically to travel to all of these different institutions to learn what I needed to learn, teach what I needed to teach,” Mr. Conley said.
The judge’s order came down hard on detectives Sanders and Hendrix, yet no disciplinary actions were taken against them or prosecutors for misconduct, said Atty. Daniel Purcell, who worked Mr. Conley’s case after freeing two other men in his initial legal work.
Det. Hendrix was never officially questioned because he passed away in December 2009. Mr. Sanders went on to become the first Black chief of police in San Francisco. He had two strokes in 2010 and though he was questioned for the case, he could not personally testify at trial. Clifford Polk died in 2007.
The detectives broke the most obvious rule of police conduct, which is to turn over any evidence that suggests a suspect is innocent or a witness might be lying, Atty. Purcell said.
It’s incredible that a cop could do things “blatantly wrong as that and keep his job and keep his reputation,” Atty. Purcell said.
It takes a case like Mr. Conley’s to bring attention to the problem because it’s beyond anything people can imagine, he said.
“All these dominoes had to fall for us to even learn about these documents. There are so many people in prison who probably got screwed the way Caramad did and there’s no way for them to prove it,” Atty. Purcell added.
Anatomy of a wrongful conviction
According to the Innocence Project, legal analysts, and other inmates’ rights advocates, the legal causes of wrongful convictions are mistaken eyewitness identifications, unvalidated or improper forensic science, false confessions, prosecutorial and police misconduct, and snitch testimony or testimony offered in return for deals, special treatment, or dropped charges.
“We’re able to demonstrate wrongful convictions in ways we hadn’t been previously able to demonstrate it,” said Atty. Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project.
DNA exoneration cases are making their way through the system, and because of these exonerations, problems in the criminal justice system have been revealed, such as eyewitness identifications that are mistaken, which account for more than 75 percent of all wrongful convictions, she said.
“It (wrongful conviction) can happen to anyone at any time,” Atty. Starr said.
Police also jump to conclusions, according to Hans Sherrer, publisher of Justice Denied, a magazine for the wrongfully convicted.
Police simply disregard evidence that doesn’t agree with their story, he said.
A national epidemic
Wrongful convictions occur in the smallest to largest police departments in America and stem from the way the system operates as a whole, rather than a matter of race, said Mr. Sherrer.
Nancy Lockhart, a legal analyst and founder of Grassroots Organizing in Support of Wrongful Convictions, believes wrongful convictions are on the rise and race is a factor.
Disproportionate statistics among exonerees are just a small indicator that innocent Blacks are overrepresented in the system, she said.
Of the 269 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S. since the 1989, 159 have been Blacks, 80 Caucasians, 21 Latinos, two Asian Americans, and five whose race is unknown, according to the Innocence Project.
Blacks are overrepresented in America’s jails and prisons as “lawful captives,” Minister Louis Farrakhan said during his Saviours’ Day 2011 keynote address, “God Will Send Saviours,” earlier this year.
Min. Farrakhan pointed out that the 13th Amendment permits slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime.
“Anything you do today, they love to call it a ‘felony,’ then they can enslave you lawfully because you are a criminal. Isn’t that something? Then in the so-called Reconstruction Era, they quickly set up the Jim Crow laws, making nearly everything we do, or think of doing, a ‘crime,’ ” Min. Farrakhan noted.
“They fill the jails and the prisons with us, and then lease us back out to private industry to build the roads, the bridges, the canals, the railroads: Back in slavery again!” Min. Farrakhan said.
Another problem is defendants are often pressured to take plea deals by public defenders swamped with cases.
“Nine out of 10 times what happens is innocent people are taking plea deals,” Ms. Lockhart explained.
Safeguards and solutions
Mr. Conley said his case showed DNA exonerations still don’t necessarily prove that the system is at fault, a judge ruled he was intentionally wronged.
“This was really an indictment against the system, as opposed to ‘well we made a mistake’ and I’m one of many guys who are in prison right now under similar circumstances,” Mr. Conley said.
Some legal analysts say safeguards against wrongful convictions are supposed to be lawyers that call out inadequate evidence to impartial judges. In reality, they say, there are many pro-prosecution judgments because judges fear being labeled soft on crime could cost them their jobs.
“Literally there’s an infection of the political process into the whole system that causes a lot of injustices, and the ones you read about are not even the tip of the iceberg. Credible estimates are that anywhere from five to 15 percent of imprisoned people are innocent, yet nationally, in an average year, there are from 50-100 people who are exonerated,” said Mr. Sherrer.
“In the state and federal prisons there are over two million people so just do the math … even only at five percent, that’d be over 100,000 people,” Mr. Sherrer said.
Ms. Lockhart feels part of a solution to wrongful convictions is for communities to take pressure off of public defenders. More funding is needed for public defenders and more work with national and local bar associations could improve legal representation for the poor, she said. More re-entry programs are also needed, said Ms. Lockhart.
Faith, family and finances
“The most critical thing to know is that these (innocent) people are messengers from hell,” said Lola Vollen of Life After Exoneration. The Bay Area-based organization is a clearinghouse that helps the wrongfully convicted through counseling, job placements, and other services.
“What’s so appalling about this particular predicament is that it is so incredibly unjust and yet our country can still do nothing effective about it,” Ms. Vollen said. Society has lost its own humanity, she said.
For Mr. Conley, faith and family helped sustain him in prison and support his newfound freedom. Brothers and sisters already established in society help to keep him grounded, he said.
His mother, Imogene Davis, said her faith kept her sane. “It was so upsetting. I know how he was raised and knew his background. To me he just couldn’t be a criminal. When this all came out I thought, ‘You mean, they know. They could prove he’s innocent!’ The law had to accept that he was innocent. I thank God,” Ms. Davis told The Final Call.
Mr. Conley now feels part of his mission is to help raise awareness about a system with a vested interest in locking people away. “Your son is a cash cow and there are jobs and money to be made on him going away to prison and your tax dollars are paying for it,” Mr. Conley said.
Mr. Conley also found a way to forgive Clifford Polk, the man whose lies helped put him away.
“When he recanted his testimony against me, the state was prepared to call in all types of officers on him to discredit what he said. Now that they used him to get this conviction, they were willing to use the whole force to bring him down and lie and say he was a drug dealer and a snitch,” Mr. Conley said.
Despite it all, he remained friends with Mr. Polk, who even visited him before trial.
“I came to the conclusion early on that he was just as much a victim of this system as I was and I believed that so it didn’t allow me to have malice in my heart towards him,” Mr. Conley said.