Special Report: Innocence Lost - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

Special Report: Innocence Lost

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

Across the United States, more than one million people are locked up. But how many prisoners truly belong behind bars?

Wrongful conviction is an innocent person's nightmare. But lots of legal experts estimate that a decent portion of the country's prison population could be serving time for someone else's crime.

"To look them in the eye as they look me in the eye and tell me you are a murderer, you are a robber, and they know the truth."

Thirty-eight year old Jackson native Cedric Willis spent nearly 12 years locked up for a crime he didn't commit. On March 6, 2006 our cameras were rolling when Willis walked down the stairs of the Hinds County jail. Willis was finally free after serving part of a life sentence.

"I was in jail for nothing and that right there was like the world was on my shoulder," said Willis. "And now that its lifted, I can't complain about nothing now."

In 1997, a Hinds County jury convicted Willis of the fatal shooting of Carl White, Jr. and robbing White and his family. Willis' trial record indicates that before the trial, the prosecution asked the judge to exclude ballistics results and DNA test results from the jury that could have proved Willis' innocence.

"When they finally convicted me and everything, you know, I just had to stay strong for my mom and my family," said Willis.

"We've actually freed or exonerated 22 people," said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans.

Maw is one of the main defense attorney's who worked to get Willis' conviction dropped.

"We hoped very much that the Jackson Police department would re-investigate the case. Added Maw. "Someone's gone unpunished all this time for a pretty horrendous string of crimes in Jackson, Mississippi."

Maw says there are about 70,000 inmates in Mississippi and Louisiana. And some say there could be between 2100 and 3500 innocent inmates in those states.

"If you are one of the people who got wrongly convicted, the only hope generally that you have that anybody is going to be able to prove that is if there is a non-profit office that can offer to help you for free such as our office,"added Maw.

Since 1990, there have been about 13-hundred exonerations nationwide. Some exonerated Mississippians, besides Willis, include, Kennedy Brewer, Levon Brooks, Arthur Johnson, Phillip Bivens, Bobby Ray Dixon and Larry Ruffin.

James Robertson, a former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice, is familiar with Ruffin's case.

"I was one of the nine justices that did vote to affirm the conviction and life sentence of Mr. Ruffin," said Robertson. 

Robertson says at the time of Ruffin's appeal, in 1984, the information received by the high court revealed no indication that Ruffin was innocent. But that all changed when DNA cleared Ruffin in 2010. He died in prison in 2002.

"As an appellate judge, all you have is the trial record, the briefs of the parties, and you don't have access to any other legitimate source of information," said Robertson. "Yet now it becomes very apparent that in fact Mr. Ruffin was innocent."

Willis says he always claimed his innocence. And now he hopes authorities will take the same time they spent convicting him towards finding the true culprit.

Our experts believe the major cause of wrongful convictions stems from an over-used justice system, along with lack of time and resources for attorneys.

Exonerated inmates in Mississippi can receive up to 500-thousand dollars in compensation over ten years.

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