A story in the Detroit Free Press about Eddie Joe Lloyd, a mentally challenged man exonerated after seventeen years in prison, brings home an important point: a wrongful conviction is a triple tragedy.
Lloyd was prosecuted for a rape and murder of a young woman in Detroit in 1984. Police got him to confess to the crime, taking advantage of his desire to “smoke out” the real killer with a bogus confession. That confession was then used to prosecute Lloyd himself. He maintained his innocence from the beginning, and was finally exonerated when DNA testing showed that all of the semen recovered at the crime scene belonged to another man.
The damage done through wrongful convictions is not limited to the years lost by the person in prison for something he or she did not do. The Detroit Free Press story makes this clear by focusing on the victim’s mother, Carlotta Jackson. Lloyd’s conviction had given her “some small measure of justice’s comfort,” but that is now gone.
“I never questioned any of the evidence,” she said. “My faith was in [the police]. I just knew they had the right person. I was just so naïve,” Jackson said through wracking sobs last week. “I was just so trusting…As crazy as Eddie Lloyd was, it still wasn’t right,” she said. “If he didn’t do it, it allowed other people who did kill her to go free. What other kind of things have happened? I just don’t know. And if they told me, how could I trust it?”
What is so striking about this terrible story is how it explains the triple tragedy of a wrongful conviction. Lloyd (who died two years after his release) suffered through seventeen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. But Carlotta Jackson, the victim’s mother, suffered the cruelty of false justice too: her one solace had been that the man who raped and killed her daughter had been brought to account, and it was not true. Third, the real killer has never been caught. He remains at large, and may have victimized other women — perhaps many others.
Too often, this triple tragedy is lost in the discussion of the costs of wrongful convictions. This story reminds us that the costs go beyond just the unfortunate innocent person in prison. The damage spreads, both wide and deep.