Some wrongful convictions are the result of “no crime”, in other words, a person is convicted for a crime that never occurred.  For example, perhaps someone died of an accident or natural causes and the defendant was wrongfully convicted of murdering them.  In other wrongful convictions where there was an actual crime, the real perpetrator is free to commit more crimes, as the wrong person serves their prison time.  This is called “wrongful liberty”.  At the 2014 National Innocence Network Conference, Professor Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina presented his research on wrongful liberty.

Below is an excerpt from his paper: The Mayhem of Wrongful Liberty:  Documenting the Crimes of True Perpetrators in Cases of Wrongful Incarceration.

“When the wrong individual is incarcerated for a crime they did not commit, they suffer a terrible injustice.  But they are not alone.  The victims of the crime suffer…from a false assurance that the crime has been solved…participating…[in] a wrongful conviction, and…consequences of exoneration.  These events may leave the original crime victim doubly victimized…But the wrongs may also include a third category…the true perpetrator remains at liberty.  In many cases these individuals commit a series of crimes during this period of wrongful liberty (which we define as the period between the original crime and when the true perpetrator is arrested)…”

The paper was a study of 36 exonerations in North Carolina, of which the true perpetrator was located in 9.


ronald cottonThe most well-known example is that of Ronald Cotton (seen above in his mugshot) who was wrongfully incarcerated for two rapes and sentenced to life in prison plus 54 years.  He served 10 and a half years for these crimes, which he did not commit.  The man who actually committed the rapes was Bobby Poole, who committed six additional rapes during his period of “wrongful liberty”.

(You can buy the memoir written by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson, who wrongfully identified him here:  Picking Cotton:  Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption)

Another famous case is that of David Harris who killed a Dallas police officer and framed Randall Adams, his case was featured in the 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line).  Harris was caught with the murder weapon and vehicle seen at the scene, but he convinced police and prosecutors that it was a hitchhiker he picked up who did the murder.  Many believe Harris escaped because he was ineligible for the death penalty, unlike the man he framed.  Adams wrongfully spent twelve years on death row before being released, mostly due to the publicity from the documentary

Harris was treated as an informant instead of the perpetrator and was never charged with the officer’s murder.  He went on to become a career criminal during his period of “wrongful liberty”.  He committed armed robberies, violent assaults, and burglaries during his time in the Army, while stationed in Germany.  He was court-martialed and served time in prison.  Following his release, he stole a car and attempted to recreate his framing of Adams.  This time, his target was a hitchhiker named James Filaan.  Harris used a gun to threaten Filaan into committing crimes and when they were arrested by officers, Harris attempted to pin the whole thing on Filaan.  This time it didn’t work and he was sentenced to 6 years, which was upgraded to 8 years because he possessed a weapon in prison.

After release, Harris proceeded to hold Mark Mays and his girlfriend, Roxanne Lockhard hostage.  He killed Mays during a shootout with the homeowner.  Harris attempted to argue self-defense, but he was convicted of capital murder and given the death penalty.  It is known that he committed at least 11 crimes after Adams’ wrongful conviction.  Harris was executed in 2004.


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