Guilty Until Proven Innocent: 10 Stories of the Wrongly Accused

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After 19 years on death row, RECTIFY’s Daniel Holden, who was accused of raping and killing his girlfriend, is released when DNA evidence can’t tie him to the crime. Though Daniel’s story is fiction, it parallels the many true cases of people who are finally freed after spending years—sometimes decades—in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Here are 10 stories of the wrongly accused.

1. Brian Banks
He’s only 30, but Brian Banks has spent 10 years of his life in prison and on probation. In 2002, he was convicted of raping and kidnapping a high school classmate; in 2012, the classmate recanted her accusation and Banks was exonerated. Once a college-football hopeful, Banks thought that his dreams of playing in the NFL were over, but he ended up suiting up and competing for a spot on the Atlanta Falcons in 2013. Banks now serves as a spokesman for the Innocence Project and is collaborating with Oscar-winning director-producer James Moll on a documentary about his experience.

2. Clarence Lee Brandley
As a janitor at a Texas high school in 1981, Brandley was accused and convicted of the rape and murder of a white student, 16-year-old Cheryl Dee Ferguson—despite the lack of any physical evidence tying him to the crime. As evidence piled up to exonerate Brandley, and the role of racism in the investigation became clear, he was given a stay just six days before his scheduled execution. After a second trial, he was finally released in 1990.

3. Darryl Hunt
In 1984, a onetime Klansman identified Darryl Hunt, 19-years-old, as journalist Deborah Sykes’ killer. In 1994, DNA evidence proved he had not committed the rape; but it was only in 2004, after another man confessed, that Hunt was released from prison. The unwavering belief in his innocence by friends and family are recounted in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival selection The Trials of Darryl Hunt.

4. Dennis Maher, Calvin Willis, Scott Hornoff, Wilton Dedge, Vincent Moto, Nik Yarris, Ronald Cotton and Herman Atkins
The subjects of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize winner After Innocence were all imprisoned for murders or rapes they did not commit, and all served years of their terms—some of them two-plus decades—before being eventually exonerated by DNA evidence. What makes their cases interesting is what happened after they were released: Jessica Sanders’ doc focuses on the difficult reentry into “normal” life.

5. Kenny Waters
In 2001, after spending 18 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, Kenny Waters was finally released, thanks to the tireless efforts of his sister, Betty Anne Waters, who became a lawyer to help free him. Waters’ story was dramatized in the Hilary Swank-Sam Rockwell movie Conviction.

6. Michael Morton
In 1989, Michael Morton was convicted of killing his wife, Christine, the morning after his birthday; prosecutors claimed that he bludgeoned her to death for refusing to have sex with him. Despite testimony from his then 3-year-old son, who had witnessed the murder, that someone else was the perpetrator, Morton was sent to prison, where he spent the next 25 years. Finally, with the help of the Innocence Project, DNA tests were run that definitively proved he was not the killer. Morton was released and exonerated in 2011. The Al Reinert-directed documentary about his case, An Unreal Dream, premiered at SXSW in 2013.

7. Michael Peterson
In 2003, author Michael Peterson was convicted of killing his second wife, Kathleen, whom he claims died after an accidental fall down their home’s staircase. One of the key witnesses in the original case, a blood analyst named Duane Deaver, was fired from his job due to inconsistencies in his work. In 2011, thanks in part to questions regarding Deaver’s trustworthiness, Peterson was released from prison. Peterson’s story is chronicled in THE STAIRCASE.

8. Randall Dale Adams
After Randall Dale Adams was convicted for the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer, he served 12-plus years of a death sentence in prison, until evidence of misconduct by the prosecution and a key witness were uncovered. Adams’ case was chronicled in the 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line.

9. The Central Park Five
The brutal 1989 rape and beating of a young woman jogging in Central Park shook New York City to its core. Five teenagers—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise—were convicted of the attack after several of them confessed (they later recanted and said that they had been unduly pressured into giving statements). The Central Park Five spent between 6 and 13 years in prison, until the confession of another man led to their exoneration. Ken Burns’The Central Park Five investigates this trial and its implications.

10. The West Memphis Three
In 1994, three teens—Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley and Damien Echols—were convicted of the murders and mutilations of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The Emmy-winning 1996 documentary Paradise Lost focuses on the community’s hysteria about the supposed “Satanism” they practiced. In 2011, after new DNA evidence was presented, they were released from prison after each serving 18 years. The 2012 Sundance Film Festival selection West of Memphis focused on mounting evidence against one of the murdered boys’ stepfathers, Terry Hobbs.

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