OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Rush to judgment

"Better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."--The Blackstone Formula

Two "In the News" items on the front page last Saturday told of men in Kansas and Massachusetts who received settlements for wrongful imprisonment for killings they did not commit.

Floyd Bledsoe in Kansas received $7.5 million from a settlement with Jefferson County. He had been released in 2015 after serving 16 years for a murder and rape that his brother was responsible for.

Victor Rosario of Lowell, Mass., was wrongly convicted of setting a 1982 fire that killed eight. He was freed in 2014 after serving 32 years; the Lowell City Council settled his suit against the city for $13 million. He told reporters he forgives those responsible for putting him behind bars.

I didn't see what evidence there was to initially convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that these men were guilty. Whatever it was, I'd have to say it may well have been either loosely circumstantial or the result of preconceptions and rushes to judgment by those who control law and order in their communities.

My background as a journalist since 1971 has led me, strangely enough, to become closely involved with wrongful and questionable convictions. I have no idea why my interest in the issue has been so strong, but it's certainly undeniable at this point.

Perhaps it has been the remarkable advancements in DNA techniques and evaluations to bring more travesties to light, and they are increasingly making headlines across our nation each year.

I've seen firsthand how damaging it can be for investigators to draw an initial conclusion then seek to find anything to make that view appear to be the only valid motive and explanation for a crime.

Back in the mid-1980s when I was still editor of the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, a reader told me about Shelby Barron, a Black mason being held for extradition to Houston on a rape and robbery charge. She was convinced of his professed innocence. I went to visit with him in his cell.

I left the Hot Springs jail that day and began asking questions. Soon, I'd collected enough evidence to prove his innocence and set him free.

A few years later in Little Rock, I was led to long-buried evidence after two trials and convictions for James Dean Walker, who had been in prison for more than two decades after being convicted of murdering a North Little Rock patrolman.

The evidence convinced the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to order a third trial for Walker. Walker was freed on time served after an odd agreement with the prosecutor where he agreed to having been at the scene of the officer's death but not of committing the murder.

Also in the 1980s, I was led to Ronald Carden of Bigelow (notice how in every instance, I wasn't seeking, but rather was led to each case). Carden had been convicted of the strangulation murder of a Jane Doe in the woods outside Little Rock. He was awaiting sentencing when I returned to Arkansas from reporting in Chicago and was told by a trusted friend of his likely innocence.

After a week of interviews and records searches, the published evidence clearly pointing to Carden's innocence proved sufficient for the judge to get the FBI Crime Lab involved and to set Carden free.

More recently, I was led to the case of 57-year-old Belynda Goff of Green Forest, who had spent 23 years behind bars for the 1994 murder of her husband, which she had steadfastly denied from her arrest. The Innocence Project of New York and Rogers attorney Doug Norwood had taken up her case when I began writing about the dubious circumstances and questionable evidence used in her arrest.

Soon afterwards, Circuit Judge Scott Jackson in 2020 took testimony and converted Goff's life sentence to the time she already had served, saying at a hearing that had such evidence been presented at her trial, it's likely she would not have been convicted. The prosecutor did not object.

Black inmate Willie Mae Harris, who became blind in prison, had spent 34 years behind bars when questions about her case came to me from a woman concerned with Willie's health and the circumstances of her abusive husband's 1985 murder. He had been killed by a gunshot Willie always maintained was accidentally discharged as they scuffled in bed.

As with Goff, Willie had refused to plead guilty in a deal offered by the prosecutor. I dug into the circumstances surrounding her case in 2020, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson commuted her life sentence, followed by the Arkansas Parole Board finally setting 72-year-old Willie free.

My purpose in writing today, other than to pause long enough to reflect a minute on where my life and career have led over the years, is to call attention to how often miscarriages of justice occur.

I've certainly found more than my share, even when I wasn't looking; plus it's good to emphasize how critically important it is for judges, prosecutors and juries to realize how often such miscarriages later are discovered to have cost innocent people their lives or certainly a large chunk of them.

If I alone have been led to this many such cases in our state without searching for even one of them, try to imagine how many must exist across our nation. It's by no means a small problem.

And when they are revealed, it's up to the integrity and diligence of the prosecutor and the court to rectify the injustice, even if it means admitting the error.

The Innocence Project estimates that between 4 and 6 percent of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are actually innocent. At 5 percent, it would mean one in every 20 criminal cases results in a wrongful conviction. That's unacceptable.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected].

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