By Theodoric Meyer and Christie Thompson, ProPublica
In 1991, an unemployed printer named David Ranta was convicted of killing a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn.
Last week, Ranta was released from the maximum-security prison in which he'd spent nearly 22 years, after almost every piece of evidence used to convict him fell away. The New York Times reported that the lead detectives on the case "broke rule after rule" — they "kept few written records, coached a witness and took Mr. Ranta's confession under what a judge described as highly dubious circumstances."
Last Friday, just a day after he was released, Ranta suffered a serious heart attack.
With Ranta's case in mind, we've rounded up some of the best reporting on wrongful convictions.
Trial By Fire, The New Yorker, September 2009 In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, an unemployed mechanic from Corsicana who had been convicted of killing his three children 12 years earlier by setting fire to his house. But as The New Yorker's David Grann reports, the arson investigation findings that the prosecutors used to convict Willingham were based on "junk science," according to a highly acclaimed fire investigator. The jailhouse informant who testified against him was unstable and had a history of addiction and mental illness. The year after Willingham's execution, a fire scientist hired by a state commission concurred that the original investigators had no scientific basis for claiming the fire was arson.
Are Memphis Prosecutors Trying to Send an Innocent Man Back to Death Row?, The Nation, March 2013 Timothy Terrell McKinney is facing his third trial for the murder of an off-duty police officer in Memphis. His first case was overturned after the prosecution suppressed evidence that questioned McKinney's guilt. Multiple testimonies now suggest it would be near impossible for McKinney to have committed the murder. But as one local put it, "when it's a police officer killed here in Memphis, you know, they quick to nail somebody."
Defendants Left Unaware of Flaws Found in Cases, The Washington Post, April 2012 In the 1990s, reviews by the Justice Department found shoddy testing in FBI labs was producing unreliable evidence. But that news failed to make its way to defendants who may have been wrongfully convicted based on flawed forensics. "Hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration [or] a retrial," the Washington Post found.
The Hardest Cases: When Children Die, Justice Can Be Elusive, ProPublica, June 2011 Our 2011 investigation with Frontline and NPR found mistakes made by coroners and medical examiners led to the wrongful conviction of numerous babysitters, parents and others for murdering children. Ernie Lopez may be one such case: he was convicted for murdering a 6-month-old girl, despite evidence that later suggested she may have died from a rare blood disease. (Lopez later agreed to a plea deal for a reduced charge.)
Death Row Justice Derailed, The Chicago Tribune, November 1999 The first part of an epic investigation by Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills of how Illinois had sent innocent men to death row. "Capital punishment in Illinois," Armstrong and Mills reported, "is a system so riddled with faulty evidence, unscrupulous trial tactics and legal incompetence that justice has been forsaken, a Tribune investigation has found." The series helped convince Gov. George Ryan to put a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois the next year, which remains in effect today.
House of Screams, The Chicago Reader, 1990 Over 20 years ago, journalist John Conroy broke a story that shook the foundation of Chicago's criminal justice system. Conroy unearthed the routine torture tactics used by then-police commander Jon Burge — from suffocation to electric shocks — that resulted in numerous false confessions and wrongful convictions.