Over the years I have read numerous reports of people, always men, who have been released after spending years in prison for murders they didn’t commit.
Over the past few weeks I have read of seven such instances.
I must admit that over the years of reading about such miscarriages of justice I was happy to see that those wrongly convicted were finally being released, but I really didn’t go into it any deeper than that.
Reading about the seven just released I did. The cases involving two of the men and the time they served really stood out.
Cousins James Soto, now 62, and David Ayala, now 60, were imprisoned for 42 years for a double slaying in Chicago in which they had no involvement. Last week a judge vacated their convictions and Soto and his cousin walked out of prison.
I found myself unable to comprehend how anyone could survive serving 42 years in prison for a crime someone else committed. Confined to a small cell for much of that time, how would you keep your sanity?
I am claustrophobic, actually a pretty extreme case. I live in fear that I someday may have to have an MRI, being placed in something similar in size to the barrel of an oversized cannon. Confined in prison, I am pretty sure, I would have found a way to drown in the toilet bowl of the small cell.
To give myself an idea of what the Soto’s lost, I thought back to where I was at age 20, the age James Soto was when he was put away.
I had just returned to high school. I had quit twice before finally deciding to get serious about my future, hoping to get enough education behind me to be able to become a pilot in the RCAF.
I did get into the RCAF and passed through officers school in London, ON, but I was sent to navigation school in Winnipeg rather than to a base for pilot training. My heart not in it, I flunked out.
Returning to my hometown of Dryden in Northwestern Ontario, I worked in a bush camp, in a lumber mill and at Dryden Paper Co,, all the while continuing to contribute sports stories to The Dryden Observer, something I had begun when I returned to school. Although I received no pay for my contributions, they eventually paid off big-time. Clips of these stories got me a job as sports editor of The Trail Daily Times in B.C., leading to a career in journalism that continues to this day.
I moved from The Trail Times to the Calgary Albertan for a year before returning to Dryden with the dream of establishing a radio station. With no money behind me, it didn’t work out so I returned to newspapering, writing sports for The Regina Leader-Post. I then moved on to The Edmonton Journal, where I remained for 13 years, the last four as city editor.
When Southam Inc., parent company of The Journal, bought The Sault Star in 1975, I was brought in as editor.
During those years I got married and had four children. I coached ball and hockey in St. Albert, a city just north of Edmonton, and ball for a while in the Sault.
I retired as editor of The Sault Star when I was 61, having been in the workforce 41 years from the time I was 20, one year shy of the 42 years Soto was imprisoned.
I had a full life. I shudder to think of how his went.
I undertook this little exercise in the hope that it would give me a little insight into how much of his life he had missed. I would hope some of you would do the same
We will never fully comprehend but at least we will have tried.
Soto and his cousin are not alone. Many have gone before, many will come after and as mentioned earlier in this piece, five others wrongly convicted have been released over the past two weeks.
The cousins were serving life sentences for the Aug. 16, 1981, killings of Julie Limas, 16, and Hector Valeriano, 18, a U.S. Marine who was home on leave. Both were convicted almost solely on witness testimony that was later retracted.
Lawyers for the pair claimed that three key witnesses gave police descriptions that pointed to other suspects. Police arrested a dozen people and allegedly coerced statements that implicated Soto and Ayala, the lawyers said.
Another Chicago man who was released was Brian Beals. He was behind bars for 35 years following a wrongful conviction over the murder of a six-year-old boy in 1988. Beals was 22 and a senior and college football player at Southern Illinois University at the time of the incident.
Marvin Haynes, who was wrongly sentenced for murder in 2004, had the ruling against him vacated on the grounds of unconstitutional witness identification. Haynes spent decades behind bars in Minnesota.
Miguel Solorio, who was just 19 when arrested for a drive-by shooting in 1998, underwent 25 years of incarceration before new evidence highlighted his misidentification in a photo lineup, leading to his release.
Marvin Haynes’ murder conviction was vacated due to unconstitutional witness identification.
Giovanni Hernandez, sentenced 50 to life, was released based on the basis of new cell phone records. Hernandez was only 14 when he was arrested for a teenager’s shooting death in 2006.
These cases are prime examples of why there shouldn’t be a death penalty, something that is the case in Canada but which is still practiced in some U.S. states.
If there is a hell, I think there should be a special place in it for police and prosecutors who push false information to make their case and to those who mistakenly identify those they alleged pulled the trigger.
None of these wrongly convicted were freed because of work by prosecutors or police. It all came about through the work of private groups correcting wrongdoing.
It is a sad commentary on the justice system in the U.S.