Thousands of People Might Be in Prison for Crimes That Never Even Happened
Once an event is mislabeled as a crime, forward momentum takes over — especially when there’s already a suspect
In 2012, Rodricus Crawford was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in Louisiana for the murder of his one-year-old son, Roderius. Years later, it was revealed that Roderius had not been killed but rather had died from pneumonia and sepsis in his lungs.
How, then, did Crawford wind up on death row for a murder that never happened?
Crawford was convicted because of a number of interrelated factors. He was Black and poor in a city rife with racial division. Responders arrived with biased expectations about what had likely occurred in Crawford’s home and ignored evidence suggesting that the infant’s death was caused by illness. The police investigated with tunnel vision, anticipating from the outset that Crawford had engaged in wrongdoing. The medical examiner prematurely committed to homicide as a cause of death and disregarded and minimized clear medical evidence that pointed to a quite different conclusion. The prosecutor was eager to secure yet another capital conviction, and the judge went along for the ride.
It would be easy to dismiss Crawford’s experience as bad luck or as a strange anomaly in the criminal justice universe. But that would be a mistake. As crazy as it sounds, potentially thousands of innocent people have been wrongly convicted of crimes that simply did not occur. In fact, nearly one-third of all known exonerations of innocent people involve no-crime wrongful convictions. And those are only the cases we know about. The actual number of no-crime wrongful convictions that have occurred throughout history is unknown and perhaps unknowable.
Wrongful convictions have captured the attention of the public and media alike, as shown by the recent breakout success of season one of Serial on National Public Radio, television shows such as Making of a Murderer and False Confessions, and scores of books and Hollywood movies. Increased public awareness of wrongful convictions is a good thing, because it illuminates what defense practitioners and scholars have long known: The system is more prone to error…