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'Actual Innocence' by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer

Powerful book details how DNA evidence frees innocent prisoners

Saturday, January 01, 2000

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

 
 

Actual Innocence

By Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer

Doubleday
$24.95

   
 

Tim Durham got used to the beatings. Other inmates kicked him until his ribs shattered and his nose was mashed flat.

Physical abuse is part of life when you are serving a 3,120-year sentence for raping an 11-year-old girl.

Nothing Durham could say could convince other prisoners, much less police and prosecutors, that he was innocent.

DNA tests finally set him free after he had served six years, survived untold attacks and seen his reputation mangled into three words -- “convicted child molester.”

DNA -- the genetic fingerprinting that can be crucial in finding truth in sexual assault and even murder cases -- proved Durham’s innocence and saved his life.

Lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, two of the country’s best and grittiest DNA experts, contend that America’s jails are populated with hundreds of Tim Durhams. Their Innocence Project is a national crusade to set free those who have been wrongly convicted.

In “Actual Innocence,” Scheck and Neufeld make a compelling case that wrongful convictions are far more common than we think. Their book, written with New York Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer, is a riveting collection of judicial horror stories. Any chapter can make your palms sweat and your teeth grind.

Dwyer brings the characters and courtrooms and crusades to life. Scheck and Neufeld supply the good science and bulldog advocacy that sometimes overcomes the abuses of bad cops, anemic defense lawyers and eyewitnesses who are flat wrong.

One of the book’s most stirring sections examines the case of Robert Miller, a slow man given to ramblings, who was sent to death row for the 1988 rapes and murders of two elderly women in Oklahoma City.

Police and prosecutors were certain Miller was their man, mostly because they claimed he had confessed to them on 14 hours of tapes. That they had manipulated him into many of his admissions was no obstacle.

Scheck says prosecutor Ray Elliott was so cocksure of the case that he bragged, “We’re going to needle your client” -- courthouse slang for execution by injection.

Elliott reluctantly retreated after DNA became available and the tests showed that semen from the rapes was not Miller’s. “It just proves he wasn’t the donor, not that he didn’t commit murder,” Elliott told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this month.

Police linked the crimes to another man who already had been convicted in two separate rapes. Miller, who remained in jail for more than five years even after the DNA results were known, finally went free.

Now a judge in Oklahoma City, Elliott said he was at peace with the way he handled Miller’s case. He denied ever saying that he wanted to “needle” Miller, and he pointed out that he ultimately dismissed the charges. By then, of course, the prosecution’s claim that Miller was a marauding rapist had been blown to bits by hard science.

The same breakthrough rescued Durham from the savagery of prison.

Hair experts and the little girl who was raped both insisted that Durham was guilty. Durham’s red hair was distinctive and matched evidence from the scene, the experts said. Durham was the man who burst into her house and hurt her, the child testified.

Much later, DNA testing of semen on the child’s swimming suit proved that Durham could not have been the rapist.

Today, Durham wonders if the attacker was a redheaded ex-convict who had moved near the child’s Tulsa, Okla., neighborhood shortly before she was assaulted.

DNA might solve that mystery, but it would require digging up a grave. The other man hanged himself as Oklahoma’s legal machinery was grinding into high gear to convict Durham.

After Durham was exonerated, he collected $50,000 in damages for the jailhouse beatings he received. Now 37, he is trying to move on before anger and bitterness eat him alive.

“Actual Innocence,” a book as powerful as the DNA science it reports on, is his first ally in regaining his reputation.

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