Field Investigation: A Conversation About Wrongful Convictions
On April 3rd, the Institute for Actual Innocence at the University of Richmond School of Law hosted a conversation about wrongful convictions and reconciliation within the criminal justice system. The conversation included a man by the name of Thomas Haynesworth who was convicted on five different counts of rape and sentenced to 74 years in prison, Janet Burke, a sexual assault survivor who mistakenly identified Haynesworth in her case, and Shawn Armbrust, the Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the woman who represented Haynesworth in his exoneration. Haynesworth’s conviction was based off of eyewitness accounts and he was identified as the perpetrator by five separate women. It wasn’t until DNA testing became available, and with Shawn Armbrusts help, Thomas Haynesworth was finally proven innocent. Although, his innocence was definitely a relief for Haynesworth, Burke was left feeling guilty and confused as she had felt that everything she had believed to be true for the last 27 years was false. Ultimately, as the two are now quite close and good friends, they both feel as though they are victims of the United States judicial system.
One explicit connection between our Media, Culture, and Identity class and this conversation can be seen in the way that the three women, and specifically Janet Burke identified Haynesworth as the perpetrator in their cases. In discussing the keyword “memory” in our class, there was a reading specifically about wrongful convictions posted on CNN titled “Eyewitness Testimony Often Lies.” The article discusses the lack of accountability in eyewitness identifications, which for Burke and Haynesworth was exactly what happened. The article states “mistakes in identification are often related to how the photos of a line-up are presented” (CNN 2011). When Burke was speaking about how she identified Haynesworth as her assultor, she backed this statement up, and noted that the officers never presented her a lineup; rather, they simply showed her pictures of Haynesworth’s face. The officers involved in this case also told Burke that the blood matched between what was found through the examination of her rape kit, and Haynesworth’s blood sample. Unfotunately, that only meant that his blood type matched what was found in her rape kit, rather than any DNA match, which they failed to mention to her when asking her if Haynesworth was the perpetrator. Burke also spoke about how she was indeed able to see her attackers face, but “anyone who has been through a traumatic experience knows that your brain just shuts down.” In Burke’s case, her memory of the invent was blurred and overshadowed by the traumatic event that had just taken place, while also being swayed by the officers influencing her decision making when identifying Haynesworth as the attacker.
Although Haynesworth sympathises with Burke and doesn’t hold anything against her, both he and Shawn Armbrust believe that there was most likely another reason why Thomas Haynesworth became the main suspect in these cases: the color of his skin. As a black man who had moved to a new area with a large gang presence, the police believed it was safe to assume that most of the crimes committed in that area were committed by black men, which is a definite example of stereotyping. Haynesworth talks about the day he was originally arrested, and recalls that he was simply walking down a street in the area where the attacks took place. He was stopped by police officers, and a woman identified him as her attacker at the time. This came as a shock to Haynesworth as he had never been in trouble with the law before and had absolutely no records on file. During the conversation, Armbrust spoke about her feelings on why Haynesworth immediately became the primary suspect in these cases even though he didn’t have a criminal record or no history of arrest, and she concluded that it was solely based off of the color of his skin. She argued that going from someone without a record, to someone being responsible for three different sexual assaults was a jump that police would have never made for a white man, but the fact that Haynesworth is black is what made such a serious turn of character seem possible. In conclusion, Armbrust believes that there were many mistakes made in the conviction of Haynesworth, and the processes used to identify him as the attacker, but she also argues that without the stereotypical representation of black males he may not have ever even became a suspect in the first place. For me, analyzing the conversation through the Media, Culture, and Identity lens, it seems easy to understand both why and how this false conviction occurred when looking at it through the two keywords: “Memory” and “Stereotype.” The conversations that we have had in class regarding these topics seemed to mesh together in the case of this conversation, which allowed me to further understand the culture surrounding these wrongful convictions, and how media portrays and represents specific people often giving them a false identity that can be very detrimental to their own existence.
Wexler, Laura. “Eyewitness Testimony Often Lies.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 Sept. 2011, www.cnn.com/2011/09/20/opinion/wexler-witness-memory-davis/index.html?no-st=1533735954.