Sunday, January 28, 2007

Guest Shot: Innocent behind bars: Can you imagine the hell of it?

Sunday, 01/28/07

Innocent behind bars: Can you imagine the hell of it?


Imagine on this bitter cold winter day being Willie O. "Pete'' Williams. Or James Waller, 50. Or 44-year-old Paul Gregory House.

Chances are most of you have never heard of these, but they all have something in common — something for which all of us should be ashamed.

Williams, after proclaiming his innocence from prison for nearly 22 years, walked out of the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on Tuesday night after being cleared of a rape conviction by DNA evidence.

"I can't even explain,'' he was quoted in an Associated Press story after being asked how it felt to be free.

Williams, sentenced to 45 years, would not have been eligible for parole until November 2021 at the earliest. Had he served his entire sentence, he would not have been released until May 13, 2030, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections Web site.

"My thoughts are continually questioning why the most intuitively compelling testimony — eyewitness testimony — is often the LEAST reliable, and what do we do about it?'' Atlanta defense attorney Bruce Harvey told me in an e-mail Friday morning. Harvey volunteered to work on Williams' case for free.

Chances are also Willie Williams might still be in prison if it had not also been for the Georgia arm of the Innocence Project. In 2005, Williams contacted the project, which examines cases where DNA evidence is available and there is a compelling claim of innocence.

Fulton County prosecutors ordered that Williams, who had been serving his sentence at a southern Georgia prison, be released after being convinced that he was not responsible for the 1985 attack on a woman in Sandy Springs. Prosecutors say they have started an investigation to find the actual rapist.

Then there's James Waller, whose conviction of raping a boy in 1982 cost him nearly half his life in prison and parole.

Waller won a court ruling Jan. 17 declaring him innocent after being exonerated by DNA testing. He was the 12th person since 2001 whose conviction in Dallas County was overturned long after the fact as a result of genetic evidence, a New York Times story said.

Waller, who also had the help of the Innocence Project, spent more than 10 years in prison before he was paroled in 1993. Some of that time, he was made to pick cotton and after he was placed on parole had to register as a sex offender.

Imagine being James Waller, whose conviction was largely based on the 12-year-old victim's identification of him, according to court papers the New York Times obtained. How would you feel? Would you be forgiving?

I've written about Tennessee death row inmate Paul Gregory House before — the first time in October 2004. That was immediately after six of the 15 judges on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said House is not guilty of killing Carolyn Muncey and should be freed.

A seventh judge on the court of appeals said in a dissenting opinion that House should at least have a new trial.

Since House's conviction in 1996 for Muncey's 1985 murder in rural East Tennessee, which he was accused of committing during an attempted rape, DNA has shown that the semen evidence used to help convict House was really that of her husband, Hubert Muncey. The physical evidence of blood tying House to Muncey's murder has also been rebutted.

Why is Paul Gregory House still on Tennessee's death row? Shouldn't all Tennesseans be embarrassed about this?

"I can say I'm sorry all day,'' the current district attorney in Dallas County told Waller. "I know that doesn't mean much to you, but I can guarantee to you in the future when I'm the district attorney, we will insist that we will not send anyone who's innocent to prison.''

The same thing should not only go for those of us in Tennessee as well, but elsewhere across this nation.

Dwight Lewis is a columnist, regional editor and member of the editorial board for The Tennessean. E-mail:

No comments: