On individual cases and in broader policy reform efforts, the Innocence Project is increasingly working with crime victims and their families to improve the criminal justice system.
Christy Sheppard's life was changed forever in 1982, when her cousin, Debra Sue Carter, was brutally raped and murdered. Sheppard was just eight years old at the time, and she lived around the corner from Carter, who was a 21-year-old waitress in their small town of Ada, Oklahoma. The crime shocked the entire community, and it shattered Debra Sue Carter’s family.
Sheppard grew up believing that Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz raped and murdered her cousin. In 1988, after two trials that were painful for the family and the community, Williamson and Fritz were convicted. Fritz was sentenced to life in prison, and Williamson was sentenced to death. While their lives would never be the same, Carter’s family believed they could finally move forward knowing that the perpetrators were brought to justice.
Seventeen years later, in 1999, DNA testing exonerated Fritz and Williamson and implicated another man in the crime. Once again, the family’s lives were upended. “We didn’t know what to believe,” Sheppard says. “The prosecution won a conviction, but then the defense said that they were innocent.”
Over time, Sheppard’s disbelief turned into resolve to fix the system. She became part of a growing and critical component of the innocence movement: crime victims and their families who want to address and prevent wrongful convictions.
Working with the Innocence Project and local advocates for the past two years, Sheppard has campaigned for an Oklahoma innocence commission, an independent entity with members from all areas of the criminal justice system that investigates previous wrongful convictions and suggests reforms to prevent them. Sheppard has talked with legislators and the public about wrongful convictions and the need for a state commission.
“When I learned about this innocence commission, all the stars aligned, and I knew that’s what needed to be done,” Sheppard said. When Curtis McCarty of Oklahoma was exonerated in May, Sheppard’s family joined McCarty’s parents and others at a press conference to renew the call for an innocence commission.
Victims themselves are increasingly speaking out to address and prevent wrongful convictions. Both Ann Meng of Virginia and Jennifer Thompson-Canino of North Carolina became active in reforming eyewitness identification procedures after they each discovered that the person they identified as their rapist was innocent. The men that they misidentified, Julius Ruffin and Ronald Cotton, respectively, were both exonerated through DNA testing. Meng, Thompson-Canino and other crime victims have learned that their voices carry tremendous weight in efforts to improve the criminal justice system.
Above: Jennifer Thompson-Canino speaks at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law about the need for eyewitness identification reform nationwide.
The Innocence Project is increasingly working with victims’ organizations as well. Over the last two years in New York, the Innocence Project has met and collaborated with the Downstate Coalition for Crime Victims on state legislation that can protect innocent people and enhance law enforcement’s ability to apprehend the guilty. On the national level, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck recently addressed a joint conference of the National Crime Victims Bar Association and the National Center for Victims of Crime, where he spoke about the importance of victims and advocates for innocent people working together toward common goals since nobody’s interests are served when an innocent person is incarcerated.
“Our reform mission, to get the right person, is something that can be shared by victims,” said John Pray of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. Pray chairs the Victim’s Committee of the Innocence Network, a consortium of groups addressing wrongful convictions nationwide. “Some victims are our best supporters – they understand that victims are not served by a system that apprehends innocent people while true perpetrators remain at large.”
On The Web:
In the October issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Ann Meng describes her shock on a December day in 2002 when she learned that the wrong man had spent more than two decades in prison for raping her in 1981. Learn more and buy the magazine here.
Read Jennifer Thompson-Canino's New York Times op-ed, "I Was Certain, but I Was Wrong"