No More Innocents Punished

The news was almost unsurprising: Last week, DNA evidence exonerated three more Mississippi men—one of whom died in 2002—imprisoned for three decades for a rape and murder none of them committed. With Forrest County Circuit Judge Bob Helfrich's Sept. 17 ruling that overturned their convictions, Bobby Ray Dixon and Phillip Bivens joined the growing list of Mississippians wrongfully convicted and cleared by DNA evidence: Cedric Willis, Kennedy Brewer, Levon Brooks, Arthur Johnson.

Along with another man, Larry Ruffin, Bivens and Dixon were serving life sentences for the 1979 rape and murder of Eva Patterson. Decades after the crime, DNA testing ordered by Innocence Project attorneys cleared all of the men, including Ruffin, of any guilt in Patterson's murder. The tests show that another man, Andrew Harris, is the actual culprit. Harris is currently serving a life sentence for another 1981 rape.

The proof of his innocence in the case comes eight years too late for Ruffin, who died in prison in 2002.

Unlike many of the people defended by the Innocence Project, Ruffin, Bivens and Dixon weren't on death row. They "merely" received life sentences. But their exonerations cast a bright light on the fallibility of the criminal justice system. Too often, the system puts securing a conviction above the search for actual justice.

Ruffin initially confessed to murdering Patterson, according to court records, but later reversed himself, saying that prosecutors had used physical force to coerce a confession. Bivens pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty. Dixon also took a plea bargain, entering a guilty plea and testifying against Ruffin.

Innocence Project data show that of the 259 people nationwide exonerated by DNA evidence, 63 made false confessions and 19 pleaded guilty. Studies have shown that overzealous police interrogators can unwittingly divulge information that panicked or desperate suspects then incorporate into a convincing, albeit false, confession. And for someone convinced they will not get true justice, alive and in prison is a more attractive option than death by lethal injection.

The data also shows that mistaken eye-witness testimony, use of improper or outdated forensic science, police informants angling for favors and plain vanilla piss-poor lawyering add to the nation's burgeoning prison population, including those who are not guilty of the crimes for which they are serving time.

Facts like these necessarily raise doubts about the reliability of the methods prosecutors use in the courts to secure a guilty plea.

Mississippi already has its share of innocent blood on its collective hands. It's time to declare a moratorium on capital punishment.


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