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Learning the Lessons of Wrongful Convictions

By Barry Scheck, Innocence Project Co-Director

When we called Jerry Miller to ask him to come to New York to talk with Bill Moyers, he said yes immediately. He had seen some of Bill's programs while spending 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and he was eager to have a thoughtful discussion about his case and the issues it raises.

Jerry was 22 years old when he was arrested and charged with a brutal rape, robbery and kidnapping. Less than two weeks ago, he was exonerated in a Chicago courtroom – at the age of 48. A wrongful conviction robbed him of practically his entire adult life.

Jerry is the 200th person exonerated through DNA evidence nationwide. He is a truly unique individual – but his case is eerily similar to many of the 199 before it, and his story echoes the thousands of letters the Innocence Project receives from prisoners every year.

Like 120 of the first 200 people exonerated through DNA evidence, Jerry is African American. Like 77% of the first 200, he was convicted based on eyewitness misidentification. Like nearly all of our clients, he spent years appealing his conviction and came to us as a last resort. And like every single innocent person we have walked out of prison, he now wonders whether his experience will mean anything – whether his case will be a learning moment about the criminal justice system’s shortcomings, or everyone will hear his story, feel bad for him and then go back to business as usual.

The staff at Bill Moyers Journal told us that readers on this blog are used to seeing questions that spark thoughtful dialogue from a variety of perspectives. Our question is the same one that Jerry and our other clients ask us so often:

What will it take for our criminal justice system to learn the lessons these exonerations provide?

What are some of the lessons of these cases? How can we all learn more from these cases – so that other innocent men and women are not wrongfully convicted and left to watch Bill Moyers from prison cells, hoping that in a few years, they too can share their story?


Barry Scheck is the Co-Founder and Co-Director (with Peter Neufeld) of the Innocence Project. Started at Cardozo School of Law in 1992, the Innocence Project is a national organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted people and implements policy reforms to prevent future injustice. Scheck and Neufeld became involved in forensic DNA issues in the 1980s, and their work has shaped the course of law and policy nationwide. Scheck, Neufeld and Pulitzer Prize-winning NEW YORK TIMES reporter Jim Dwyer are the authors of Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution, and Other Dispatches From the Wrongly Convicted, published by Doubleday.

Bill Moyers talks with Jerry Miller this week on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

Photo: Robin Holland


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I think that we should pull back are troops from the war in Afganistan.

Ya we have to learn certain lessons from his life.

I just Read it information about the person will be Jerry was 22 years old when he was arrested and charged with a brutal rape, robbery and kidnapping. jerry was create a robbed and late of information about the lesson pls read it lessons

I think this nation is proud of its' strength of commitment whether it is right or wrong. Like Bush/cheney's committment to their Milton Friedman economic plan that is financially destroying a growing number of people.

My country right or wrong...

But when systems kill without a check and balance system that works...We must do something no matter how uncomfortable or expensive the change for the better may be.

My country right or wrong... and if wrong, to right that wrong!

I just posted the story below about the wrongful coniction of a disabled man (Robert McClendon) The URL did not show up. Please visit our site at:

It took a tragic situation before we opened our eyes to the problem. My disabled brother was wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn't commit. And to top things off, the family that pointed the finger at him went to his home a stole EVERYTHING he had. Please visit our site.

My support of the death penalty is limited strictly to those who kill for pleasure. A remorseless, unrepentant person who has taken a life for their own amusement is, in my mind, on a par with a rabid dog: You don't hate the dog, you don't punish the dog, you don't put the dog in a pound for the rest of it's life to discourage other rabid dogs. You shoot the dog because you have to. It's not something to be either proud or ashamed of doing and there is no sense of justice or satisfaction from the act. I would be happy to see my taxes used to develop technology for determining guilt or innocence beyond doubt, but I would rather not spend a dime of it keeping a sociopathic monster alive because we're too sensitive about injustice overall to do what is sometimes necessary.

I found Mr. Cahill competely prtentious and not worthy of your time or attention. He just bluffed himself all through and through...

Prisons are a big business the commercialization of highly designed penitentiaries with towns and small business springing up around them. Just like towns sprung up around cathedrals in medieval Europe or the ancient temples one day our towns will be dug up by archeologist and we’ll be know for these truly ugly monoliths. The Gestapo police state who has places 46% of people on death row and in prison who are in fact innocent. We have more people in prison then China and they have Billions in they’re population we only have 300 to 400 million people. 12 Million of illegal immigrants are in America who causes a large percentage of the serious crimes. We release career criminal and pedophiles who deserve life. Many prisoners are forced to manufacture things like blue jeans in sewing factories for 25 cents a day or be placed in solitary confinement. I wonder how many millions the county, the private penitentiary company and the jean company makes off of this kind of indentured captured servitude. So we have a really cheap choice “Made in China” by prisoners and or low cost workers who sometimes commit suicide because of the stress of not getting paid or “Made in USA” who want to do the same to all of us but for a lot less. Thank you K-Mart, Thank you George Bush, Thank you Bill Clinton, Thank you George Bush Sr, Thank you Ronald Regan, and Thank you Jimmy Carter. Once again Thank you Bill Clinton for give China card blanch free trade status into the US who now has 2 Trillion dollars in T bills around the neck of this president the next few. Thank you, you bunch of elected infantile imbeciles.

Vengeance must never be confounded with justice. They are as different as night and day.

I practiced criminal law for the better part of 40 years. My experience included a brief period as a special agent in the FBI, a deputy district attorney, a court appointed public defender, and a private criminal defense attorney. In retrospect I believe that the search for justice was never the primary goal of the majority of the players. Most trial level judges were former prosecutors with political ambitions. The primary concern of the judges was to move cases and not to get a reputation for being soft on crime. The ability of prosecuting attorneys was judged by the number of convictions they obtained. Defense attorneys were judged by the number of acquittals they won and the amount of money they earned. There were far more seminars on how to earn money than on how to obtain justice.

This program was another great one. I congratulate Bill Moyers.

Once again I am left shaking my head with the lingering question: When will the judicial system be held accountable? Uphold Justice as the Theme in our courts, remove the Judicial Scoreboards. Sadly,until then, we the citizens will be forced to view our neighbor's loss of years, discrimination, and abuse, stemming from our courtrooms. How the State can justify not feeling responsible for compensation is beyond me or anyone else which has compassion for their fellow man...I say..let the ones which grossly placed injustice on this person and his/hers family members, experience the same injustice. Let them share the compensation..let them share the loss...let them learn how many seconds there are in a each painful second reminds them of the separtion from loved ones and the lingering endangerment housed all around. Experience IS the BEST medicine!

I've recorded and watched Mr. Miller's interview a couple of times now; including writing down in my Treo several quotes from him, that I personally need. He will remain an inspriation to me, and thanks to modern portable electronics, I'll carry his words with me wherever I go from now on.

I've served on a grand jury in a crime-ridden city; it left me very angry and saddened, the abuses - maybe the better word is neglet, or casual indifference to truth and justice - that i saw. I also saw specific things that 'gamed' the system against truth and justice. Since we have more than 51 systems of 'justice' in this country, the first thing we need to do that would start the process of making a difference is put in place, by law, an automatic minimum-compensation law. It would have to be more than just money; e.g, $1 million for every year of life lost. It would also have to require that the judges and prosecutors involved - including those who ruled on appeals - somehow automatically have to publicly explain themselves, and have put on their records that they not only violated American principles by depriving humans of their basic rights; but they they did not do their job in getting them out, either, when some of them only get out because of outside Agencies like The Innocence Project.
Dave Huntsman

I was very disappointed with this story. The victim, Mr. Miller, has a fascinating story to tell. Mr. Moyers seemed determined to milk it for all the emotion he could find. The story is powerful enough without such a blatant attempt to manipulate viewers!

And why did Mr. Moyers not raise the issue of compensation for Mr. Miller? And why did he not show us anything Mr. Miller said about what happened in court, and how his lawyer could have been (apparently) so incompetent?

Please, next time, more focus on *facts*, and let viewers decide what to feel.

I thought this was one of the best interviews Moyers has ever done of his many i I have seen over the years..

The story transcended even the circumstances and was a larger commentary in my mind on the vengeful mindset in our society.

Mr Miller's story and how he coped with it should be played in every school, college etc.

We seem unable to struggle aganist adversity these days without anger and hatred and this was a great lesson in doing it.

Thank you for inviting Mr. Miller to speak. I am most impressed by the strength of his mind and his understanding of what he had to do in order to survive. In the short time he spoke, he became an inspiration to me in many ways.

I was once a victim of a violent crime with no knowledge of the person who attacked me. Overwhelmed by fear, I could only remember what his hands, teeth, and the button on his coat looked like. The police wanted to catch the guy and had ways of pushing images. They attempted to hypnotize me into remembering . Though I hoped and prayed the man would not harm another, I knew I could not accurately identify him.

I am guessing the victim picked the person that looked most like his/her attacker out of the the line-up, as if these were the victim's only choices. I didn't hear the particulars of this case in the interview, so I do not know if my statement applies, but if the victim identified with a race different from Mr. Miller's, it's very possible that the victim missed seeing details based on unconscious fears going on at the time.

This country's court system must make it a priority to take the issues of fear and racism into account. Many people do not seem to realize how they see others. Under stress, this lack of information can have life threatening repercussions for those we choose to incriminate.

Mr. Miller deeply touched me. He was able to transcend his anger and resentments, to find a positive channel of hope and faith, he truly practices the way of the Bodhisattva.

I chant and meditate everyday that stories such as this one, will move the people to take action for truth and justice. To stand up to the near fascist form of government that currently rules.


Mr. Jerry Miller is a man I have tremendous admiration for and one whom I would wish I could emulate, but I doubt I could. I really don't have to wish him success or luck in life, he is already a success far beyond the standards of the society that falsely imprisoned him.

In a democracy we must begin to understand tht we have the justice system we allow. It is not imposed from outside, it is the one we allow. I hope Mr. Miller's story and the many other outrages of our criminal justice system will get the citizens of this nation to realize they allow their government much to much because they choose to cower in fear and do not embrace the freedom that is their birthright.

How ironic that on the same Moyer's programs you have one about disbelief in God, and another about a man named Jerry Miller who basically says there is no way he would have survived 25 years of wrongful imprisonement without the help of the God of the Bible. Even though Miller was innocent of the crime he was incarcerated for, there are multitudes in prison for many more years than they should be because we live in a hypocritical, punitive society that seeks to merely warehouse men in rat cages rather than actually "correct" them, or redeem them, restore them. We simply throw human beings away. Shameful. May God have mercy on this self-righteous system and nation of ours.

I watched Bill Moyers' interview with Jerry Miller in utter disbelief, that a judge would allow such a baseless case proceed in the first place. I commend Mr. Miller, for he is a far greater man than I. I think the judge who allowed this travesty to occur should get 25 lashes, one for every year of freedom Mr. Miller was denied. The police were clearly corrupt in this case, and not one of them should be able to collect any pension or benefits. Seeing as how people only care about their wallets, Mr. Miller should get a million dollars for every year he was wrongfully and falsely imprisoned, even 10 million dollars for every year would not be enough to make up for the wrongs that Mr. Miller has suffered. Mr. Miller clearly had an alibi, and I am more than angry for him and all others that have suffered a similar injustice. My God, what is wrong with this nation? Sadly, this is merely the status quo.

Hi Fellow Moyers viewers, join us over at to talk about the show or whatever is on your mind.

Part of the problem is *who* is learning from these cases. Until more prosecutors start approaching these cases with an open mind (in investigation but also when people ask for DNA tests) we'll keep seeing stories like this. Instead, DAs get defensive and claim the system works just fine, even though it clearly doesn't.

I seriously doubt that any lessons will be learned, because the 'justice' system is not really interested in justice so much as it is in maintaining a 'stable' society. They'd rather send any number of innocent people to jail than have the public's confidence shaken.

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