Randall Mills spent 11 years and 3 months in a Tennessee prison cell for a crime he did not commit.  He had been accused and convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl in 1999.  Few believed his pleas of innocence until DNA evidence in 2008 provided ironclad, irrefutable proof that he did not assault his preteen neighbor.  It took 3 more years for him to be released from prison and even then, he faced retrial.  About two months ago, prosecutors dropped all charges.

Mills’ said that he was shocked that it was over, “I wasn’t about to give up…”

Mills’ case is one of a growing number of exonerations across the nation in recent years.  His exoneration came within days of a National Academy of Sciences’ study that estimates that 1 out of every 25 death row inmates are innocent.

“It could be that we’re at the beginning…or a bit of a ways into it. But there does seem to be a change in attitude,” said Sam Gross, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and one of the authors of the death row innocence study, “The number of exonerations that we know about has been increasing…”

Amid the growing concerns over when the justice system gets it wrong, many states are fiddling with the only part of the system that can never be reversed:  executions.  Tennessee is looking to resume executions for the first time in almost 5 years.

There have been thousands of exonerations since the 1950s and these figures often do not count acquittals at retrial, among other things.  Wrongful conviction cases often involve recantations, perjury, bad eyewitness identifications, official misconduct, and faulty forensics and despite DNA being the most famous part of the innocence movement, that evidence remains the most elusive in all of the justice system.  DNA accounts for a small percentage of exonerations and is only present in at most 10% of all criminal cases.

In Tennessee there have been 14 exonerations.  Paul House, who was convicted of murder in 1986, but released in 2008 is not part of that statistic because prosecutors can still retry him.

Maurice Possley, a senior researcher for the registry, said “We just don’t know how deep the problem is. It’s the thing that gets re-emphasized to me all the time.”

Bryce Benjet, a staff attorney for the Innocence project, said “Part of it is just the number of DNA exonerations.  These are difficult cases to dispute. There’s hard, scientific evidence. As those pile up, case after case after case, it just becomes hard to deny that there’s a problem here.”   The Innocence Project, the most famous of all the innocence advocacy organizations, was founded in 1992 and handles 250 cases at any given time.

On the night of March 15, 1999, a 12-year-old girl who lived in the other half of the duplex where Mills lived went missing.  After a search, she was found locked out of her apartment on the front porch.  She told police she was in Mills’ apartment where he offered her drugs, sexually assaulted her, and then paid her $20.  Police collected biological evidence from the girl.

Mills maintained his innocence from the beginning, but even before his trial no one believed him.  At trial, the TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) said that 1 out of 13 genetic markers matched Mills and that put the odds of Mills being the rapist at 1 in 290.  Based on that and the testimony of the victim, the jury found him guilty of child rape, exchange of a controlled substance with a minor, and 3 counts of aggravated sexual battery.  He was sentenced to 20 years.

He filed appeal after appeal and like many innocent convicts, he was repeatedly rejected.  In 2008, eight years after his conviction, Anne-Marie Moyes, an attorney with the Federal Public Defender’s Office was able to get the DNA retested.  The results found that the TBI tests were flawed.

Mills wasn’t released until 2011.  Despite the new evidence, he was considered a sex offender and had to register.  He also was denied the ability to see his grandchildren.  Two years later, a state appeals court ordered a new trial.  The Innocence Project picked up the case.  Bill Ramsey, an attorney who worked on the case, said the victim started changing her story and the case fell apart, “He got screwed [out of].  Twelve years…”

Prosecutors finally dropped all the charges.  Mills lost nearly 12 years of his life in prison.  He lost his career and can’t find a job like many innocent people entangled in the system.  Regardless of whether your record reads acquitted, dismissed, or even exonerated, employers don’t want you around.  Mills also lost his son who committed suicide after he went to prison.

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