Every exoneration is special, every exoneration is a miracle – but this one is sweet indeed.
It’s a rare and beautiful moment when a man who has spent 20 years behind bars for a crime committed by another man is finally freed – it’s even more rare when that just freed man is declared innocent not only by the court, but by the District Attorney’s Office that first prosecuted him wrongly! To declare him actually innocent is a thing that doesn’t often happen, even in wrongful conviction cases with strong evidence of innocence. Yet, this is what happened on October 15, 2018 for California Innocence Project client Horace Roberts.
The Riverside County District Attorney, Michael Hestrin, said it correctly when he said the following:
“Today I want to inform you that I’ve, that we have dismissed all charges against Horace Roberts for the murder of Terry Cheek in 1999. Mr. Roberts was erroneously convicted of murder in 1999 in Riverside County. What happened to Mr. Roberts is an absolute tragedy and a travesty. And our system of justice is designed to make sure that outcomes like this do not happen, and yet… it happened in this case.” – Riverside County District Attorney, Michael Hestrin, October 15, 2018 – Horace Roberts exoneration press conference.
Hestrin was correct when he said that this case was a tragedy and a travesty. He was not correct however when he said that the system is designed to make sure outcomes like this don’t happen. The reality is that our system is set up to efficiently convict people. It’s set up to plea people out, to accrue convictions, and to affirm those convictions for decades to come. It is not set up to make sure wrongful convictions don’t occur. It’s the drop in the bucket, the rare lightning strike that shows the system finding errors on its own. No, the truth of the matter is that 99.9% of exonerations are hard-fought for years by innocence organizations on shoe-string budgets against a system that defiantly and sometimes shockingly denies any error, any mistakes.
The California Innocence Project had to wait for nearly 15 years before anyone would listen that Horace was wrongfully convicted. Think about that. Let that sink in.
Go visit the National Registry of Exonerations. There are nearly 2,300 documented exonerations since 1989 – the tip of the iceberg, yet still an impressive number. Can anyone with a straight face and right mind look at that number of exonerations and still believe the system is designed to make sure wrongful convictions don’t occur? No, the reality is that Horace Roberts was lucky, as ironic as that might sound. But don’t take my word for it, listen to Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project, who has some 30 plus years of experience working in criminal justice.
I had the great pleasure to meet Horace last week, the day before he traveled back to his family in South Carolina, where he was to be united with them after 20 years. His life may now include long-deserved freedom, but it won’t become much easier. Many challenges await Horace – and as Justin says, it may not be years until some of this sinks in. Yet this is all the more reason why innocence work is so important. Please support your local innocence organization – they truly cannot continue this work without your support. There are many more Horace Roberts still incarcerated on bad convictions. The system will not, dare I say cannot, correct itself. Stories like Horace’s must continue to inspire new generations of wrongful conviction warriors to the cause.
Please help spread awareness of wrongful convictions by sharing his story with friends and family, and over social media. Every little bit helps. And thank you.