New York scribe explores randomness of wrongful convictions
Book by New York Post reporter looks at national trend of men and women incarcerated for crimes they never committed.
Nationwide studies estimate that as few as 2.3 percent and as many as 5 percent of prison inmates across the country may be innocent.
At least 200 people across New York State have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated from crimes that courts later found they did not commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School.
One of those wrongful convictions was of Brooklyn man David Ranta, who in 1991 was arrested and tried for the shooting death of a rabbi after what police said was a jewelry heist in Williamsburg.
New York Post reporter Reuven Fenton was in the courtroom the day a judge told Ranta he was free to go, moments before his family embraced Ranta for the first time in 22 years.
Since Ranta's release, Fenton has compiled stories of people from all over the country with little in common but for the fact they lost years of their lives after being wrongfully convicted. Those glimpses into 10 cases from around the country can be found in Fenton's new book, "Stolen Years: Stories of the Wrongfully Imprisoned."
Was there any specific story or incident that motivated you to look into how people convicted for crimes they didn't commit?
I'm a tabloid newspaper reporter who covers mostly breaking news, and a lot that has to do with crime. Probably more than 50 percent of what I do is crime-related. But one category of story that I found very compelling the past few years is the exoneration story.
What was first exoneration hearing you witnessed?
It was actually the Ranta case. It was a huge press event, and extremely moving. I'd never seen anything like it before. I remember reporters asking sort of superficial questions that work like, "How do you feel," or, "What's next" — which work as a breaking news. But I remember thinking there's so much more to this guy's story. He has a 20-year saga, and we're just scratching the surface.
Did you ever get a chance as a reporter to go beneath that surface?
I'd sometimes be assigned to shadow an exonerate after their first day out to see what he had to eat and where he went shopping, but even that was still the surface. This is the very beginning, this is them just getting started. The first day or even week is too early.
How were you able to break way with that in the course of talking to other exonerees?
Most of the people I spoke with for the book have been out two to three years. That's closer to being enough time for them to get a sense of the world and their place in it again.
One of the people you spoke with was a Bronxite named Devon Ayers.
He was actually one the first chapters I wrote. What was so striking about his story is that he was so young. He was just 17 years old when he was arrested for a double homicide in Soundview. He's kind of a character — the comic relief among the other inmates. It struck me because I covered so many cases like his. He was at Rikers Island for 2½ years; I've been to Rikers so many times to do interviews. I've been to Soundview. I could visualize all these places and things in his case. His was very much an urban, New York case.
But you spend a lot of time with your research showing it's a nationwide problem.
I could have done an entire book on any single one of the people I spoke to, but I wanted to show that people from all walks of life have gone through this experience: Men and women of different races and different socioeconomic status, some had prior convictions, some didn't.
Did you have any misconceptions about the wrongfully convicted that you worked through in the course of your interviews?
One thing that I didn't think I understood or appreciated very much was the randomness with which this happens. I think I had this innate sense about our government and our justice system being made up of highly professional, competent individuals –even when I hear evidence of the contrary. I see a professional and I assume they're professional.
How does the randomness play a part?
There are people who are arrested and convicted even though they're not familiar with the crime, or even heard about the crime. It seemed so random that it could actually happen to me. I may have been seen at or in the vicinity of a crime scene or on surveillance video and could end up being a suspect based pretty much on circumstantial evidence. It's entirely unlikely, but it's seemed to be as random as being caught in a plane crash. And like a plane crash, it can be a small percentage of cases yet still be a substantial number.
There's an ongoing national and local conversation on law enforcement and accountability. More cities, including New York, are looking into body cameras, and NYPD recently confirmed all of their precincts would be equipped to videotape interrogations.
I commend the NYPD for doing so because it needs to be done. The interrogation itself ends up being such a critical piece of evidence that should be presented in the courtroom. And the body cam discussion is part of a national trend. People trust the badge, despite all they read about protests against police brutality that is bringing cynicism towards law enforcement. People should be skeptical, and it's not about trashing police. And i do think that, most of the time, the guy arrested is actually guilty — I do feel confident about that. I'm just more skeptical.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.