An op-ed collection

Community Contributors

The following op-eds were researched and written by Farmington High School’s ASPIRE students. All work is courtesy of the authors named. 


Actual Wrongful Conviction by Camila Barreto

You witness a crime. You are questioned and testify as an eyewitness to the said crime. You identify the offender in the courtroom. Thirty years go by and you hear the offender is now being exonerated. Their reason for being exonerated? Wrongful conviction. You have just misidentified an innocent individual by accident. This happens in the majority of wrongful convictions. The depth of wrongful convictions is very deep and it’s something not many acknowledge for the fact that we put our trust in the criminal justice system. But like anything in this world it’s not perfect, it has its flaws. In many cases this flaw has disrupted and ruined so many lives. Victims of wrongful conviction will never get back the valuable time they lost while serving jail time for a crime they never committed.

It’s a proven fact that 69 percent of wrongful convictions are due to eyewitness misidentification, making eyewitness misidentification the leading cause of wrongful convictions. In the case of Ronald Cotton, a black man, he was wrongfully identified as Jennifer Thompson’s, a white female, rapist. Jennifer testified in court stating Ronald Cotton was her assaulter, and he was sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years. In prison he met a man named Bobby Poole, who just so happened to share many similar facial features. He later discovered Poole had admitted to raping Jennifer Thompson, Cotton was allowed a new trial due to this new information. At the trial Jennifer failed to identify Poole as her attacker and identified Cotton once more as her assaulter. Jennifer’s misidentification of Ronald Cotton took away 10.5 years of his life, but she did not intentionally wrongfully identify Ronald Cotton. There are many different factors that play into eyewitness misidentification, it’s more complex than one would assume. Firstly, cross-racial identification is considerably less accurate than same-race identifications. The mind will mix up traits like facial features when trying to recall what their attacker looked like. As well as a person’s memory begins to diminish rapidly over a period of hours rather than days or weeks. It may seem like you know 100 percent who you’re identifying as guilty, but sadly in some cases our brain does not cooperate with us to correctly identify someone.

Retention involves the storage of memory between the initial acquisition and later recall. This becomes an important part of one’s ability to correctly identify someone in court. Auckland University Law Review wrote a piece called Who Did You See? An Evaluation of the Criminal Justice System’s Response to the Danger of Eyewitness Misidentification, where they state that retention is relevant because “this becomes important concern during an investigatory stage, as research demonstrates that memory can be adversely affected if the investigation exposes the eyewitness to post-event information that can interfere with their recollection of a particular crime and the perpetrator’s appearance.” This leads into a specific form of eyewitness misidentification, in which the eyewitness is coerced into identifying someone and or given information by the law which sways their decision of identifying the correct individual. In the case of Franky Carillo, he was wrongfully convicted for the murder of Donald Sarpy. A local gang had done a ‘drive by’ at the Sarpy’s residence and opened fire on Donald Sarpy, his son, and 5 friends. Only Donald Sarpy was hit, the rest were taken into questioning once police arrived at the scene. While gathering eyewitness information from Scotty Turner, the detective gave Turner a book filled with possible individuals who could be responsible for Sarpy’s murder.The detective coereced Turner into choosing someone from the book, if Turner didn’t choose who he wanted to be guilty they would move on and Turner had to choose someone else. Finally Sarpy recognized Franky Carillo from around L.A and chose him. The detective was satisfied with that identification and allowed Turner to converse with his buddies. Turner told his friends where Franky Carillo’s photo was in the book and to identify him as the Sarpy’s murderer. They later testified in trial and Franky Carillo was sent to jail. After 20 years Franky was finally exonerated when Turner realized the damage he had done because of Ditsch, the detective.

In the case of my community contact, Leroy Harris, he spent 30 years wrongfully incarcerated for 2 different charges. He was charged with the robbery of a nightclub owner and the sexual assault of two women. Here’s where the criminal justice system became lazy with their work. The robbery was committed by three individuals, two individuals were already serving time for the robbery when Leroy became a suspect. The two individuals in prison identified Leroy’s photo as the third accomplice, in order to protect their remaining free friend. As for the assault charges; neither women identified Leroy as their assaulter but despite the insufficient amount of evidence he was charged with the assault of both women, he was sentenced 80 years in prison. He spent 30 years in prison learning about the law because no one seemed to be on his side or give him the time of the day to explain his side of the case. His side being his innocence. He filed many habeas corpus, a mandate requesting to be brought to court to prove one’s imprisonment is unlawful, each one was denied. Finally his voice was heard by the Innocence Project, and they discovered new DNA evidence that excluded Leroy from both the assault and robbery. Leroy’s constitutional rights were violated when the prosecutor failed to present this evidence and allowed false testimonies. With this new information Leroy was offered an Alford Plea; which means you serve time, state your innocence, you are convicted as guilty, then you are let free… as a known felon. Not accepting this plea puts one at risk of waiting a copious amount of time for a retrial, which in some cases you will continue to be proven guilty. With this plea the criminal justice system saves themself the embarrassment of wrongfully convicting someone and owing them any compensation for their time which they wrongfully served. It’s obvious how faulty the criminal justice system has become due to the creation of this plea. They make one of the biggest mistakes they can make in their workforce and the victim must face the life long consequences.

This is where flaws begin to occur in our criminal justice system, faulty police work puts innocent people at risk of being accused and/or convicted of crimes they have no involvement or knowledge of. The detective, Ditsch, on the case had used Turner’s age to manipulate him into giving the answer he wanted. Scotty Turner was a 16 year old boy out on the street, and Ditsch made it clear he could pull some strings to disrupt his already poor life. This is an issue that has no real solution, it would be impossible to comb through our entire justice system to pick out the bad apples. Even then, not all would be removed. Many workers of the criminal justice system hold a status that will not be tarnished, despite their unethical and unlawful actions. This whole situation comes down to one’s morals. Are you willing to do the right thing, no matter how difficult it may seem? Or take the easy way out and ruin an innocent person’s life? In criminal cases 1 out of 20 cases have convicted an innocent individual, research continues to show 4-6 percent of incarcerated people are actually innocent.

It wasn’t until forensic science that wrongful conviction began to become more unlikely. That is not to say that wrongful conviction isn’t continuing on today. This type of science became available to the criminal justice system in the 90’s; its most important role in exonerating the wrongfully convicted is helping identify an individual’s DNA. In a Court Review titled The Impact of Forensic vs. Social-Science Evidence on Judicial Decisions to Grant A Writ of Habeas Corpus., the United States alone forensic science has helped exonerate around 220+ innocent individuals, of which roughly 75 percent of these wrongful convictions were due to eyewitness misidentification. Even with this major forensics breakthrough, many forensic scientists have begun to abuse the power of the science. Experts sometimes testify regarding forensic-science practices that, while practiced for years, have not been subjected to adequate scientific research. In the case of Anne Dookhan, a former chemist in Massachusetts admitted to falsifying evidence affecting around 34,000 cases that came into her hands. Individuals like Dookhan have abused the very important job of doing what is not only right for the world but as well as protecting her community.

This time around imagine YOU are the innocent victim being wrongfully convicted. You would expect people to show their compassion about your situation and do everything in their power to help not only you but others who have experienced the same thing. With all this being said it’s clearly very important to acknowledge wrongful convictions and how even today they continue to occur. This topic is not widely discussed, and it’s also not a problem that only occurs in the United States. As a minor myself I have discovered different resources to spread the word about wrongful convictions and its importance in today’s society. The Innocence Project works to hear out the pleas of innocent victims and do their very best to gather evidence/information that will prove an individual’s innocence. You can look them up online and gather information about people’s experience with being wrongfully convicted or how to help the situation. Real people of the law work behind the organization to not only exonerate the wrongfully convicted but prevent more cases where innocent people are being locked away. There are not many organizations willing to take on these challenging cases but it’s important that we begin to acknowledge this issue now, rather than later. As the rate of wrongful conviction may rise due no one calling the criminal justice system out for their wrong doings. To help out is as simple as signing a petition, reposting this issue’s importance on social media platforms, or donating to organizations so that they can put their very best effort forward into helping people in this position. Wrongful conviction is real. It’s about time people stop ignoring this issue and begin taking part in helping those who are continuing to experience wrongful convictions today.


Putting faith in the US Justice System to punish those responsible for crimes? You shouldn’t… by Olivia Bartusik

What would you feel if one day you were walking on a side walk to get to your desired destination but instead you were ambushed by the police and led to a jail cell for a robbery and sexual assault? Worse, you have never even heard about the individuals you are being blamed for hurting or the property damaged? Suddenly, the freedom that the US promises diligently to all of us turns into thirty years imprisonment without many opportunities to have your pledges of innocence heard. Unfortunately this isn’t just a “what if”scenario because it’s what happened to Leroy Harris who was wrongly accused and locked away for decades of his life. Harris became a suspect and later on blamed for a crime which at the point of his arrest already held multiple other people responsible for it. Leroy Harris was failed by the system whose job is to protect him. The US Justice system holds many flaws and it’s our responsibility to be educated about its mistakes and biases towards certain communities.

The Innocence Project is a private organization of knowledgeable persons who work together with those willing in the Justice System to analyze cases of those claiming innocence as well as those who haven’t been carried out correctly. Bad interpretations of crime scenes and emotional/racial biases add up in cases against innocent suspects. Regardless of the flawed system, steps can be taken to minimize the risks. When a crime occurs the police brush the scene for fingerprints in order to match names with the physical evidence. If your name is the one that comes up as a match , your protests won’t benefit you in any way. The Innocence Project has completed projects which showed that improper forensic science led to half wrongful convictions due to DNA evidence since 1989. After years of putting together databases of DNA, to this day bite marks and shoe prints used to examine cases are unclear because of the variety of them out there. Only in recent years computer algorithms are being developed to determine matches. Scientists suggest that more can be done to obtain correct matches with the evidence being examined away from suspects and then directed once a forensic profile has been built. The Innocence Project has discovered that 46 percent of overturned convictions involved dodgy forensics!

Eye-witnesses have been used to determine the majority of suspects in crimes throughout years. The lack of alibi for those suspected of wrong-doings analyzed depends on the witnesses who saw the crime take place which often is not many. Eyewitnesses have proved to not be a reliable source of identification yet it’s still a common courtesy. Close to three quarters of wrongful convictions have been due to faulty human memories. Trusting others recalling events leads to a downfall of many convictions because it’s easily contaminated by other’s ideas and versions of events. People tend to trust the feeling of familiarity and choose options of “I’ve seen that face before…” or “they come off as untrustworthy?”. Stress and the pressure to identify a culprit can blur people’s memory of an event and put them in a spot where they feel the need to point at the closest person they believe they saw commit a crime.

False confessions happen more frequently than you may think. More than a quarter of those tested by the DNA evidence ended up being incriminating statements. Many of those who choose to be dishonest believe that the truth of what actually took place will come out eventually. Unfortunately, certain people confess voluntarily to cover up for someone else’s wrong-doings or simply craving the attention they may be needing. In the United States the accusatory method is what’s used when questioning suspects which oftentimes results in people giving in and confessing statements they know are untrue. Other nations such as Australia and New Zealand focus on information-gathering methods where they encourage suspects to give their own version of the story without gaslighting them into stating whatever may be helpful to wrap up the case as soon as possible.

Oftentimes court cases include people forming opinions before gathering all evidence and listening to the different sides of the same story. Biases for age, attractiveness, race, gender have been identified to be push factors when surveying a felony. US students show that all-white justices are more likely to convict black defendants for crimes over other races. When analyzing molestation cases it was found out that jurors would rule in favor of those accused of the crime when the photographs of the victims were manipulated to make them unattractive. The background experiences of judges shape how they view the world and the cases brought upon them which leads to unjust convictions based on their personal biases. The Innocence Project suggests creating visual courtrooms instead where avatars represent all present. The method is just one suggestion which would force all included in the cases to focus on the law and evidence presented instead of how someone presents themselves.

 The justice system has evolved and still progresses as time goes on, but even with the improvements we have noticed over the years, it is still not perfect. To improve the system, people who are honest and want to find out the real truth behind the countless crimes happening each day should be hired through a fair process. The attorneys chosen should be dedicated to portraying the truth in the courts and not be blinded by statements made by others. During investigations, the process should be focused on gathering facts and stories from witnesses without biases such as race, attractiveness, and social status present. Biases can become less effective through educating those being questioned and in court about their effects. Keeping video records of trials and the conversations held with those involved in the crime will allow more people to analyze them and provide a variety of feedback a single person couldn’t.  The system should be built of people dedicated to proving the innocence of those who deserve it and finding those who are responsible for their wrongful actions. 


On wrongful convictions: does the judicial system incentivize public servants to practice misconduct? by Valentina Salazar

Since 1989, 2,900 people have been exonerated due to a wrongful conviction within the US. Although this number might seem low, this accounts for approximately 25,900 years of life lost behind bars. The reasons for these false convictions vary, and can include eyewitness misidentification, jailhouse informants, faulty forensic evidence, prosecutorial malpractice, bribed confessions, and most importantly, police misconduct.
Currently, about 37 percent of these nationwide cases are caused by police corruption and misconduct, and within individual states, the same percentage differs. To give a few examples, in Illinois, it’s 75 percent, in Nebraska, it’s 66.7 percent, and in Kansas, it’s 57.1 percent. According to Ken Ottorbourg, a researcher at the National Registry of Exonerations, “The two most common types of police misconduct are misconduct during interrogations and also failing to disclose exculpatory evidence.” Although both of these components of police misconduct are equally as important, I will be going into extensive detail about police failure to disclose evidence, and overall negligence of honesty in court.

Prior to this, it’s important to acknowledge the United States’ increasingly rampant and destructive incarceration issue. With over 2.2 million US citizens currently imprisoned, we have the highest population of prisoners in the world. Even more than China, who have almost 4x as many people as we do. Many have labeled this as the “Prison Industrial Complex”, an overlapping of interests between the government and corporations that, when in conjunction, encourage mass incarceration. Essentially, the US government has handed over the management of select prisons to private firms. Because of this, leadership within these firms favor certain political lobbyists, who influence legislation that may increase profits for these private institutions. In turn, all of this promotes the incarceration of more US citizens, as more prisoners equals more money. How vomit-inducing is that?

Not to mention, the amount of non-violent offenders that are currently imprisoned is appalling. However, that is a completely different subject, not relevant to this topic.

To get into specifics, one of the most horrific and dishonorable occurrences of wrongful convictions due to police misconduct happened within the Los Angeles Police Department, in the late 90’s. During this time, there existed a division within the LAPD, called Rampart, which maintained jurisdiction in an area in the northwest of downtown LA, and was notorious for gang activity. As a result of several arrests of police officers working for this division, the Chief of Police, Bernard Banks, decided to look further into the Rampart subdivision of the LAPD. What he found was sickening.

On March 2nd, 1998, 6 ½ lbs of cocaine were discovered to be missing from an evidence room. LAPD officer, Raphael Perez, was deemed the primary suspect for this crime, and was accused of it. In order to minimize his jail time, Perez agreed to a deal with investigators, and acted as an informant to acquire over 4,000 transcripts that revealed police corruption to the highest degree – “…implicating (LAPD) police officers in wrongful killings, indiscriminate beatings and violence, theft, and drug dealing… systematic acts of dishonest law enforcement… in which evidence or contraband was planted on suspects, false statements were coerced or fabricated, and police officers perjured testimony in court.”

As soon as the scandal went public, 300+ prisoners filed writs of habeas corpus (summoning officers to court) in search of overturning their convictions. From this, 156 individuals were exonerated as a result of the crimes committed by LAPD police. Even those who had committed the crimes they were charged with, but police had (in any way) lied about the case. As a result of police misconduct, not only innocent individuals were freed in this case, but also guilty ones!

To illustrate another occurrence of a false conviction due to law enforcement malpractice, this case was based in Missouri, involving then-20-year-old Lamar Johnson. He was accused of lethally shooting a man, Marcus Boyd, on his porch, in broad daylight. One of the main witnesses was a man named Greg Elking, who “…at first said he could not identify either of the killers because of the masks they wore. Later, the lead detective on the case, Joseph Nickerson, told Elking that police knew Johnson was the killer, and that the state could help Elking with moving expenses if he cooperated with the prosecution.”

During a suspect lineup, Elking failed to identify Johnson as the perpetrator, and noticed that Det. Nickerson seemed bothered by it. Later, in an elevator, Elking asked Nickerson to disclose the numerical order of suspects in the lineup, and which one he thought was the murderer, which implicated Johnson. In 1995, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

Many years after Johnson’s conviction, Elking wrote, “The detectives and I had a meeting with the Prosecutor Dwight Warren and convinced me, that they could help me financially and move me & my family out of our apartment & relocated in the County out of harm’s way. They also convinced me who they said they knew murdered Marcus Boyd.”

To make matters worse, it was later discovered that Nickerson composed four untruthful false police reports, based on statements from four separate witnesses. A couple years later, all of these witnesses evaluated the reports and stated, under oath, that they didn’t say what Nickerson had credited them for. As if this weren’t bad enough, during the time Johnson was convicted and has served jail time, both of the legitimate perpetrators have signed affidavits stating that they were Boyd’s murderers, and Johnson was not.

Guess what? After 27 years, Johnson is STILL in prison, Despite all of the previously mentioned inconsistencies. On a side note, please take a minute to sign the petition to advocate for Lamar’s freedom, named “Lamar Johnson – Wrongfully Convicted in the State of Missouri”.

The last, and one of the most recent astounding cases of police misconduct involves Zachary Wester, a police deputy in the state of Florida. He was found guilty of fabricating evidence, 67 counts of racketeering, official misconduct, possession of controlled drugs and paraphernalia, tampering with evidence, and false imprisonment. He is currently serving his sentence of only 12 years in prison.

6 years ago, in 2016, he began working at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, in Florida. There, he built a reputation for being an aggressive cop, with staggering numbers of drug-related arrests. Eventually, other officers and prosecutors began to notice inconsistencies in his police reports and body cam footage, and became suspicious of him. Upon the commencement of an investigation into his cases, he was fired, arrested, and later sentenced. His body camera footage is publicly available, and I encourage you to watch some of them yourself. From the pull-overs to the arrests, the clips are revolting. It is painfully clear that police malpractice is STILL ongoing. It hasn’t stopped; it’s still prevalent. All of these cases are only a few of thousands.

It’s ignorant to assume that there is a sole source that causes this issue, and it is equally as ignorant to assume that there is only one solution. However, these may include increased government funding for the installment of police body cameras, more thorough reviews of the footage from these cameras, and more serious consequences for officers who are proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, to have practiced misconduct. Additionally, law enforcement entities should prioritize integrity and accountability throughout their department. As a government agency, police are supposed to protect citizens. Once you have signed an oath swearing to this, any violation of it should warrant more severe consequences.

And, of course, we as citizens of the United States, should advocate for the correction and prevention of wrongdoings, whether it be by participating in peaceful protests, voting in elections, or simply just signing and donating to petitions. It’s the best we can do, in order to improve the livelihoods of as many Americans as possible.