Special Report: Convicted but Freed

Special Report: Convicted but Freed

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - People are fascinated by crime investigations and court cases, which translated into extreme popularity for the true crime series Making a Murderer, which became, what some experts have called, Netflix's most significant show ever.

It shows Steven Avery being exonerated of rape after serving 18 years in prison, only to be arrested a few years later for a separate murder.

That show is sparking passionate debate about reasonable doubt and how cases are prosecuted, so we investigated how someone could be convicted but free.

Imagine being in jail 14 years for a crime you didn't commit or shouldn't have been found guilty for. That's been the average stay behind bars for a record 149 people in the U.S. who were found to have been falsely convicted of a crime in 2015.

That's three people per week, and 40 percent of those reversed conditions were for murder. These are new findings from a review conducted by the National Registry of Exonerations, at the University of Michigan law school.

Columbus Defense Attorney Shevon Sutcliffe Thomas hopes to prevent his clients from being convicted in the first place, telling us he's focused on giving them a fair shake in court.

"I'm not in the business of guilt or innocence. It is about the due process. Guilt or innocence - that's what judges or juries do," Thomas said.

Before it ever gets there, the case begins with law enforcement. Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor says his deputies and investigators try their best to build a case with no holes.

"Preparing for trial, and if you don't do that, you're going to potentially lose or your case is going to be dismissed," Sheriff Taylor said.

Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Julia Slater has been on both sides of the courtroom. She says they will not prosecute if it's not the right person. Slater describes her main duty in 2 words: seek justice.

"Even if we know, in our heart of hearts, that this is the right person, if that evidence is not admissable in court, then we wouldn't go forward," D.A. Slater said.

She gave us an example:

"We find out that there's DNA that doesn't match. Immediately, we're going to move to, if the person's still incarcerated, to get them out of jail as quickly as possible," Slater told News Leader 9.

But reversals on DNA are fewer than you think. In the last 3 years, the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia reviewed hits from CODIS - or Combined DNA Index System - for 3,000 cases, leading to only one exoneration in the state.

So, what if a defendant feels like he or she has been wrongfully convicted? The options to clear their names are to ask the judge to overturn the guilty verdict, or move for a new trial within thirty days, or the convict can appeal to a higher court to reverse the jury's decision.

"Close if not 100 percent of convictions are appealed," Slater added.

"I understand that the system that we have may be frustrating to some people," Thomas said.

That frustration goes for suspects and victims' families, who may get upset when it takes an average of 16 years to execute a death row inmate in states like Alabama. The appeals process often takes years.

Still, Thomas said, "The appellate process, for me, is about the integrity of the process."

Thomas tells us, he does not question a jury's verdict, but how it was presented to the jury, and if it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

There are so many reasons to appeal or for a conviction to be overturned, including potential missteps by the defense counsel or prosecutor.

"If you make a mistake at the trial, then 14, 15, 20 years later, you're going to be doing this all over again, and justice is denied," newly re-elected Russell County District Attorney Kenny Davis said.

Official misconduct played a role in 65 percent of exonerations last year nationwide, but at the D.A.'s office in Columbus, there have been no cases of prosecutorial misconduct during the last 8 years, since Slater has been in office.

"We do what's right. Sometimes, we're going to make technical mistakes," Slater said.

Sheriff Taylor added, "It's easy to flip something over based on a technicality, and you try very hard not to have those."

The D.A. for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit says a 10-15 percent reversal rate is not unheard of, and most are for errors in judges' decisions, like a judge giving the jury instructions incorrectly.

Other reasons prompting appeals include: ineffective assistance of counsel at trial; misconduct by a juror; or newly discovered evidence.

"In order to take a man's or woman's life, liberty or property - there are certain safeguards, procedure that has to be followed," Thomas said about his defendants.

"We attempt to have clean trials. We don't want anything to come back," Slater said.

Meantime, Thomas says out of 100 cases that go to the D.A.'s office, he believes 95 are worked out with agreements, avoiding trials, while possibly only one of those 100 is appealed.

As for the growing number of exonerations, some prosecutors worry it undermines the public's confidence and trust in America's criminal justice system.

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