Commentary

Another victim of NC’s Kafkaesque criminal justice system is rescued

Yet another innocent man got out of a North Carolina prison this week after serving decades of a sentence he didn’t deserve. How anyone could still believe we should be putting people to death in light of such a development is unimaginable. The following story appeared originally on the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Weak evidence sends innocents to prison, or death
By Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation

Yesterday, Howard Dudley was exonerated after serving 23 years for a crime he never committed — sexually abusing his daughter.

Dudley was convicted and received a life sentence based on a single piece of evidence: the testimony of a 9-year-old girl who was intellectually disabled and had mental illness.

Not only did prosecutors rely on the girl’s false statements to convict Dudley, but they never revealed court records showing that the girl told several outlandish versions of the story and that many people in her life believed she was lying. Dudley’s inexperienced trial lawyer, who spent just 27 hours preparing for his trial, didn’t know to ask for the records.

The girl recanted almost immediately after the 1992 trial. For more than 20 years, Dudley’s daughter has said he never abused her.

It might sound unbelievable that a person could receive such a stiff sentence based on such thin evidence. In fact, people in North Carolina are frequently prosecuted for the death penalty based on evidence just as flimsy.

Nine people have been exonerated from North Carolina’s death row, and the testimony of unreliable witnesses has been a huge factor in many of those cases. Alan Gell was wrongly sentenced to death based on the false testimony of two teenage girls trying to hide their own culpability in the crime. Levon Jones received a death sentence because of the statements of a single woman, who was paid for her testimony, told several inconsistent stories about the crime, and later recanted.

Research shows that the use of unreliable witnesses — such as children, jailhouse snitches, co-defendants, or people who are being compensated — is commonplace in capital prosecutions in North Carolina. Among defendants who have been the targets of capital prosecutions, despite evidence too weak even to prove their guilt, more than half of cases involve the use of unreliable witnesses.

Go to our new online database, On Trial for their Lives, to explore the cases of innocent people who were prosecuted capitally based on the thinnest of evidence. Or read CDPL’s comprehensive report about wrongful capital prosecutions in North Carolina.

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