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Wrongful MO Murder Conviction Puts Justice Reform in Spotlight

Exonerating an innocent person takes from seven to 10 years, according to the Midwest Innocence Project. (Fifaliana Rakotoarison/Pixabay)
Exonerating an innocent person takes from seven to 10 years, according to the Midwest Innocence Project. (Fifaliana Rakotoarison/Pixabay)
July 13, 2017

COLUMBIA, Mo. – A federal judge this week awarded Ryan Ferguson $11 million after he served a decade in prison for a 2001 murder in Columbia, Mo., that he didn't commit.

In the wake of the judgment, members of the justice advocacy group Midwest Innocence Project are describing changes they believe the state should make to prevent other wrongful convictions.

The group’s director, Tricia Bushnell, says Missouri ranks 49th in the country in public defender funding. She notes the state doesn't necessarily have to spend more money to make the system more fair.

"You could say, 'If this is the system we're creating, and this is how much money we're going to allocate for the public defense, then we're going to allocate the actual same amount of money to the state and prosecution,'" she states.

It's estimated that 2 to 5 percent of people in jails and prisons nationwide were wrongfully convicted.

An appeals court found that Ferguson's conviction was the result of misconduct by prosecutors withholding evidence. He was released from prison in 2013.

Bushnell says misidentification of suspects by witnesses is a problem Missouri needs to address. Nine Missourians have been freed from prison after DNA evidence showed they were not guilty.

In all nine cases, eyewitnesses had identified the wrong person. That, she says, demonstrates changes should be made to outdated suspect lineup procedures.

"How we select the other individuals who are put in a photo array or a lineup of people we call the fillers,” she states. “We want to make sure that the witness knows that the investigation will continue, regardless of whether or not they make an identification."

Bushnell gives the example of a 7-year-old crime victim who was told that if she didn't identify "the bad man," then he would go free.

That kind of pressure, she says, doesn't bring justice. Of the people currently awaiting Midwest Innocence Project assistance on their cases, 77 percent involve eyewitness identifications.


Kevin Patrick Allen, Public News Service - MO