He Calls Me by Lightning: The Life of Caliph Washington and the Forgotten Saga of Jim Crow, Southern Justice, and the Death Penalty
Week after week, the story unfolds before our eyes: “Wrongfully Imprisoned, Groundskeeper Returns” (The New York Times, March 28, 2018); “$10 Million for Man Wrongly Convicted of Murdering Parents” (The New York Times, April 21, 2018); “Philadelphia Man Freed After Serving 11 Years for Murder He Did Not Commit” (The New York Times, May 16, 2018). Since 1989, when what’s known today as the innocence movement started gaining momentum, over 2,200 convicted people have been exonerated in the United States, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
That suggests, of course, that a worrisome number of guilty people may never have been caught (although about half of DNA exonerations actually result in the conviction of the true perpetrator). Estimates of wrongful convictions range between 2 and 5 percent, meaning that as many as 100,000 innocent people may be sitting in the country’s vast prison network. Death row exonerations have, at last count, reached 162. The image of these exonerees (an awkward word that entered the dictionary only in 2002) blinking in the sunlight after years or decades in prison is touching, troubling, and infuriating.
By now we know all this. The question is how and why wrongful convictions occur. The four books under review are among the latest to tackle aspects of the subject, through anecdote, personal testimony, and meticulous historical reconstruction. In different ways, each of the four contributes to a deeper understanding of the problem in its several dimensions: poor police work, unreliable witnesses, prosecutorial misconduct, juror gullibility, defense inadequacy, bad forensics passing for science, racism, and more.
Among the four books, the most powerful narrative, S. Jonathan Bass’s He Calls Me by Lightning, is not about an exoneration and lacks a happy ending. It recounts the fourteen years a young, barely literate black man, Caliph Washington, spent imprisoned in Alabama, most of the time on death row, for killing a white police officer in what was almost surely not an act of intentional homicide. Released in 1971 by a writ of habeas corpus from a state court, Washington spent the remaining thirty years of his life reindicted and under threat of another murder trial; having mislaid crucial evidence, prosecutors couldn’t move forward, but neither would they give up as long as Washington walked the earth a free man. In this convoluted but well-told tale, the most profound analysis may have come from Washington himself before he died in 2001: “My problem began when I was born.”
Any effort to tackle the subject of wrongful convictions faces the high bar set by two books published earlier this decade. One is Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2014), a first-person account by…
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