In just the past month, Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent has secured the release of the third prisoner who was wrongly convicted of a serious offense. The most recent case involved Jaime Ponce, a Mexican immigrant who was convicted and sentenced to 47 years in 1998 on a series of charges including conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder, and extra time for being identified as a gang member, even though he maintained he was never part of any gang.
At the time of his arrest and conviction, Ponce was a 19-year-old Mexican immigrant with two jobs, one in a restaurant and another at a bakery. On his day off, he went to a friend’s party, got drunk and went to sleep in a bedroom, according to reports. The next thing he knew, LAPD officers were waking him up and placing him in a lineup of other young Latinos outside. They were looking for the driver of a car involved in a drive-by shooting hours earlier in which no one was hit. They had arrested the passenger. Two days later, another victim surfaced and identified Ponce as the driver of the drive-by vehicle.
Three Wrongful Convictions Thrown Out
The researchers at Loyola’s Project for the Innocent said Ponce’s case had many of the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction. The eyewitness who identified him later said he was pressured by police. A confession was presented to the jury in English, even though Ponce only spoke Spanish at the time. And then, there was a bad defense attorney, someone hired by Ponce’s father for $5,000.
The defense lawyer did not interview any witnesses and did not meet or talk to Ponce before the trial began. Adam Grant, director of the Loyola project, said Ponce’s trial essentially put on no defense and left the jury no choice but convict him. That lawyer was later reprimanded by the state bar association in a separate case for not properly communicating with her Spanish language clients. Loyola took on his case in 2015 after getting a letter from Ponce’s parents. This month, prosecutors agreed to support Ponce’s release in a deal that sent him back to Mexico on April 11, after nearly 20 years behind bars. He had been in the U.S. illegally.
Effects on the Wrongfully Convicted
There is no question that the wrongful conviction has its impact on the person who was wrongfully imprisoned. Ponce said that for the first 11 years in custody he was in the Pelican Bay State Prison, which houses the most violent prisoners and a majority of California’s prison gang leaders. Ponce said he was beaten several times there and was forced to join one of the prison gangs. He also said he tried to kill himself five different times in prison. Ponce said he kept hope alive by drawing animals and portraits of other inmates. He also ended up learning English in prison.
Wrongful Convictions Are Common
The sad fact is that our criminal justice system is not perfect and wrongful convictions are more common than you know. The United States leads the world in incarceration of its citizens, has about 2 million people behind bars. That means even a wrongful conviction rate of 1 percent would translate to 20,000 people who were punished for crimes they did not commit. One recent study shows one in 25 death row inmates are likely innocent.
A report compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School found that 149 people were cleared in 2015 for crimes they did not commit, more than any other year in history. By comparison, 139 people were exonerated in 2014. The number has risen most years since 2005, when 61 people were cleared of crimes they did not commit.
The men and women who were cleared in 2015, on average, served 14.5 years in prison. Some had been on death row. Others were under 18 when they were convicted or suffered from intellectual disabilities. About 40 percent of the 2015 exonerations involved official misconduct, a record. About 75 percent of the homicide exonerations involved misconduct. Also, nearly 20 percent of exonerations in 2015 were for convictions based on false confessions, which was a record. Those cases were mostly were homicides involving defendants who were under 18, intellectually disabled, or both.
How Can This Be Avoided?
The national Innocence Project looked at a number of cases where individuals were exonerated and came up with recommendations divided into eight categories, which were as follows, to avoid such tragic errors and miscarriage of justice:
- Eyewitness identifications, better lineup procedures and better officer training.
- False confessions, testimony and informants, and recording all interviews.
- Preventing investigative bias.
- Improving DNA testing procedures.
- Expanding access to DNA databases and providing more resources to smaller law enforcement agencies.
- Creating a “culture of critical thinking.”
- Openness to re-examine closed cases when new evidence or information surfaces.
- Invest in new technology.
The Need for an Experienced Defense Lawyer
The high incidence of wrongful convictions is yet another reason why need to get an experienced and knowledgeable criminal defense on your side earlier on in the process. So how do you choose the best criminal lawyer for your needs? The first step is to know when you need a criminal defense attorney. If you are facing a serious charge such as murder, attempted murder, robbery or sexual assault, you need an experienced defense attorney on your side as soon as possible.
Understand that defense attorneys will help you with all legal issues related to your case such as identify pretrial issues, file motions that could potentially improve your situation or even get the case dismissed, and of course, represent you in court if the case goes to trial. Choose a criminal defense attorney who handles cases similar to yours. Schedule an initial consultation with the attorney and take his or her advice with regard to proceeding further. If you or a loved one has been accused of a serious crime, call us at (888) 250-2865 to discuss your case at absolutely no cost.