Written by Sam Ross, edited by Julia Neves
Finding the criminally responsible individual is one of the hardest parts of a police or investigator’s job. Fortunately, the rapid advancement of technology over the past few years—whether it is CCTV, body cameras, or internet search history—has made this once lengthy process much easier and more effective. Racial profiling in the criminal justice system, however, continues to persist. The unfortunate pattern of wrongfully convicting members of the Black community has not been overcome.
For a quick overview, Black people make up 13% of the population in the United States. Yet, they make up 47% of the country’s known exonerations. The crime that African Americans are most often accused of is murder, with the average African American being 7.5 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than a White person.
One specific example that illustrates this is the story of Ronnie Long, a man who was accused of rape and burglary and sentenced to 80 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. After sitting in jail for 44 years as an innocent man, previously excluded evidence came to light and Long was acquitted of all charges. While his release was a happy day for him and his family after decades of separation, it was also bittersweet. Long, being only just 20 upon his incarceration, spent over half his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Despite there being no physical evidence proving that he had committed the crime, his life was stolen from him due to police misconduct and an all White jury.
Long’s story is just one of many cases involving a wrongfully convicted Black man. Thankfully, he had a somewhat happy ending to his story. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many in the United States. In some cases, individuals have been executed as a part of the death penalty before their innocence can be proven. While in these scenarios, the State does provide compensation to the families. However, there is absolutely no amount of money that could make up for the pain of losing a family member. Especially since it is an irreversible punishment for a crime they did not commit.
This begs the question: why does this happen at such a dispropritianlty high rate with Black people? As is the case with the Long trial, it is often police misconduct that leads to the initial arrest of a Black individual, even when there is no evidence connecting them to the crime. It’s no secret, as seen in the media over the past few years with cases like George Floyd, that police have their own racial biases that influence them to act in horrible ways.
When researching the issue of wrongfully incarcerated Black men, a common phenomenon that I encountered was the misidentification of Black defenders by White victims. This is a problem that becomes especially apparant in crimes of sexual assault, because often the only witness is the victim themselves. That being said, in a haze of trauma and confusion, it’s been a common occurrence wherein the victim mistakes their actual assaulter with another Black man. This is a situation that has presented itself frequently, especially when the victim is a White woman and the accused is a Black man.
It is clear that there is something very broken with the way race is perceived in the criminal justice system. We as a society must improve this issue for the future – whether it be by becoming more educated on the matter, or being willing to acknowledge and fix our own racial biases. Though improving for the future is important, we must also not forget the countless men and women who have already fallen victim to wrongful incarceration. We must continue to learn about stories like Ronnie Long’s, and provide victims with the necessary therapy, rehabilitation, and justice to allow them to live out the remainder of their lives in a dignified and humane way.
Hill, E., Tiefenthäler, A., Triebert, C., Jordan, D., Willis, H., & Stein, R. (2020, June 1). How George Floyd was killed in police custody. The New York Times. Retrieved March 2, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html
Swarns, C. (2022, September 30). Report: Black people 7.5 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than whites, risk even greater if victim was white. Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/news/report-black-people-7-5-times-more-likely-to-be-wrongfully-convicted-of-murder-than-whites-risk-even-greater-if-victim-was-white
CBS Interactive. (2020, August 31). Wrongfully-convicted black man, freed after 44 years in prison, calls release “breathtaking”. CBS News. Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ronnie-long-freed-44-years-prison-wrongful-conviction/
The National Registry of Exonerations – Exoneration Registry. Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/about.aspx