His first steps out of the squad car are met with a swath of cameras. It's the afternoon of Monday, March 12, at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, and Michael Wayne Hash tells the reporters that he wants to enjoy a home cooked meal, something he has not had in 12 years.
When he was 19 years old, Hash was sentenced to prison for allegedly killing a 74-year-old woman with assistance from two accomplices in rural Culpepper County. The Wednesday before, Judge Jay T. Swett had ordered he be released and his case re-examined. A harsh February report from a Senior U.S. District Court judge had blasted the prosecution for "a series of lies and failures to disclose exculpatory evidence," such as failed polygraph tests by prosecution witnesses. Judge James C. Turk also charged that investigators who provided crime scene details to a jailhouse snitch to make his testimony seem more reliable was "outrageous misconduct."
The murder conviction was overturned as a "miscarriage of justice."
According to WJLA news, Culpeper County Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Close resigned the day after Hash was released on a $10,000 bond. A special prosecutor has six months to decide whether to retry the case. Hash is a victim of mishandled prosecutions. According to a report in the Journal of Law and Criminology, in the U.S. 350 wrongfully convicted people have been exonerated since 1989.
Hash's story showcases common problems among wrongful convictions.
Without physical evidence tying Hash to the scene of the crime, the prosecutors relied heavily on witnesses. Two convicting testimonies were from the alleged accomplices of the crime; both were given plea-bargains and served drastically shorter sentences then Hash. A cellmate got his sentenced reduced to time served by testifying that Hash had confessed to committing the murders during one night in the same cellblock.
"Jailhouse snitches should be forbidden," said Rob Warden, Director of Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions. "It should be equated with bribery." Warden, who has worked to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted since 1989, said that jailhouse snitches are one component of police and prosecutorial misconduct.
Currently, only 11 states are required to record police interrogations from start to finish. Recording everything would be a step in preventing false confessions and testimonies from emerging into the courtroom. "[It is] important for the judge to look at the recording . . . Judges need to do more as gatekeepers," said Brandon L. Garrett, professor of law at the University of Virginia. Police officers encourage these false confessions by feeding them details of the case, which the suspect may admit to out of a desire to please the interrogating officers, said Dwight Aarons, law professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Law.
Police need to be more accountable for preventing mishandled cases from going to trial, said Kate Germond, director of the Centurion Ministry, an advocacy group for those wrongfully convicted. "This will go on, and on, and on, until police are made to be held accountable."
Another factor: mishandled forensic evidence.
Bennett S. Barbour was convicted of rape in 1979 with conflicting physical evidence and the victim's testimony. A DNA test proved his innocence in 2010, and the real perpetrator of the 34-year-old rape case has been identified as a known sex offender. But even using 1979 technology he should have been exonerated: the seminal fluid left by the assailant belonged to someone with a blood type different from Barbour's; hairs found at the scene of the crime did not match.
"The person who did this victimized both of us," the victim commented to Nate Green, the current Williamsburg prosecutor, when he briefed the victim of the recent developments made in the case. Until several months ago, Barbour and the victim remained uninformed of the DNA evidence excluding him from guilt, even though the information had been in the hands of Williamsburg authorities for almost two years, the Virginian-Pilot reported.
"A lot of forensic evidence in court what is used in court is not scientifically sound," Aarons said. "Bite marks, ballistics, hair, finger prints . . . is subjective. Even DNA can be tampered with if forensics team doesn't know exactly what they are doing." Judges allow evidence to be submitted in court because they assume the jury can decide for themselves if the evidence is sound, Aarons said. The responsibility, he said, should be shifted to the prosecutor who should be working to bring about justice, not increase conviction numbers.
Mistaken identification among eyewitnesses is another common factor in mishandled cases. "The [eyewitnesses] want to help the police because they're the men in white hats," Aarons said. The police's heavy reliance upon eyewitnesses is something that perpetuates false identification. Better documentation of crime scene evidence and an increased reliance upon accurate physical evidence would narrow the margin of error among identifications, he said.
The next step in reforming the justice system is to advocate on behalf of those who have been wrongfully sentenced. Death-sentence supporters believe that for some particularly heinous crimes, especially where guilt is not in doubt, death is the only appropriate and just sentence. But death penalty opponents argue that the number of people exonerated from death row shows guilt is too often less than certain. Aarons notes that taking the death penalty off of the table would lower the risk of excessively-harsh sentencing, especially because defense attorneys can be inclined to accept plea bargains that are padded up against the risk of receiving a heavy sentence, he said.
"The death penalty is used as a hammer," Warden said. "People plead guilty for a lighter sentence."
The increase in public awareness of wrongful convictions is a valuable cultural shift. "Hopefully someone on a jury is thinking about that [possibility of a wrongful conviction] when they have a tough case in front of them," Aarons said. "If we have jurors who are more contentious, we will have fewer [mishandled trials] hopefully."