No question about it, America is in a get-tough mood on crime. Calls for more and meaner prisons, mandatory sentencing and the death penalty were much in vogue during this fall's political campaign. Fed up with street violence and their sense of a national descent into lawlessness, voters want to put criminals away faster and longer. And they are justifiably skeptical when they hear pleas of innocence from men and women already behind bars. Yet, disturbingly, some of those claims turn out to be true.

"Even though we have one of the finest criminal justice systems in the world, we are still human beings," says sociologist Michael Radelet, 44, coauthor of In Spite of Innocence, a study of wrongful convictions in capital cases. "No matter if it's shoplifting or murder, we still make mistakes. "James McCloskey, head of the Princeton-based prisoner advocacy group Centurion Ministries, agrees. "Thousands of innocent people are in jail, "he says. "It happens far more than we care to believe."

Radelet and McCloskey say mistaken eyewitness identification and false testimony are the most common factors that lead to wrongful convictions, but overzealous prosecution and poor legal representation of defendants are often to blame as well. Unfortunately, once the prison door slams behind innocent men and women, prying it open requires more resources and savvy than most inmates can muster. "Those who get out are just incredibly lucky, "says Radelet. Here are the stories of four wrongfully convicted men and their desperate efforts to regain their freedom:

A 10-year-old conviction for rape is reversed by new DNA evidence

On the morning of Oct. 21, at the Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, Va., Ed Honaker sat on his bed and stared at the walls of his 6-by-10-foot prison cell. He smoked to pass the time. He fidgeted. Then, at 9 a.m., a guard appeared at his cell door. "Ed, get your drawers on and get out of here," he said. "You're going home."

Honaker had been waiting nearly 10 years for those words. "It's one quarter of my life," he said on the afternoon of his release. Honaker had been convicted of rape in 1984 and sentenced to three life sentences plus 34 years. In retrospect, the conviction is particularly troubling because samples of the rapist's semen, recovered from the victim, contained sperm, while Honaker's semen—because he had a vasectomy in 1977—contains none.

The sad saga began on June 22, 1984, when a 19-year-old woman and her boyfriend were driving late at night on the Blue Ridge Parkway in rural Virginia. They pulled off the road to rest and were awakened at about 3:30 a.m. by a burly man with a mustache. Shining a flashlight into their car, he identified himself as a police officer. When he told the couple to step outside, the man pulled a gun, demanded the keys to the car and ordered the boyfriend to run. Then he forced the woman into his truck and drove her to a secluded area, where he repeatedly raped and sodomized her.

Several months later, an elderly woman was assaulted 87 miles away, in her Roanoke home, by a burly man with a mustache. She told police he looked like a former neighbor, Ed Honaker, a repairman. Even though Honaker was quickly eliminated as a suspect in the assault case, police showed his picture to the Blue Ridge rape victim and her boyfriend. Both said he was the rapist.

At the trial, the victim looked straight at Honaker and said, "This man is in my head all the time. I know that's him." The prosecution also offered one damning piece of physical evidence: a hair found on the rape victim's shorts that a state forensics expert said appeared to match Honaker's. Instead of emphasizing his vasectomy Honaker says, his lawyer, Ken Farrar, mentioned it only in passing at the trial (Farrar could not be reached for a response). The jury reached a guilty verdict in just 2 hours.

It took nearly a decade for the truth to come out. In 1993, Kate Germond of Centurion Ministries agreed to look into the case. When she reviewed Honaker's file, she found that the victim and her boyfriend had been hypnotized six days after the crime to help them describe the rapist. Since witnesses are highly suggestible under hypnosis, evidence obtained from such sessions is inadmissible in Virginia. "I thought, 'This is dead wrong,' " says Germond.

Meanwhile, Germond obtained a court order for DNA tests that, in January 1994, revealed that even if Honaker had not had a vasectomy, the sperm found on the victim's underwear could not have been his. Nor did it match that of the victim's boyfriend. Subsequent microscopic tests of the notorious hair revealed that it shared some characteristics with Honaker's but was not a positive match. Despite this evidence, Gov. George Allen ordered additional tests and let Honaker languish in jail another 10 months before issuing a full pardon.

A few hours after being released from Nottoway Honaker, who is divorced, found himself sitting in a Richmond restaurant surrounded by friends, family and members of his defense team. Following nine years and 361 days in prison, he was at a bit of a loss. "It feels so strange," he said. "There's no one telling you what to do.

"Can I take my jacket off?" he asked anxiously Germond laughed. "You're a free man," she told him. "You can do anything you want."

Lying testimony from the real culprit puts a man on death row

For five years, Joseph Burrows sat on death row at Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Ill., crocheting afghans to ease his despair. "It was a human zoo," says Burrows, 41. By last winter he was so despondent that he considered abandoning his appeals and asking authorities to set a date for his execution.

Then a miracle happened.

This summer, Gayle Potter, the woman who had originally fingered Burrows for the murder of an elderly farmer outside Sheldon, Ill., recanted her testimony and confessed that she was the killer. "I couldn't live with the fact that I had put an innocent man on death row," says Potter, 38. "It was a relief to finally have the truth come out."

The murder case had been the first in the area in two decades. On Nov. 8, 1988, relatives found William Dulin, 88, lying on the floor of his farmhouse, killed by a gunshot wound to the head. Later that day police arrested Potter, a cocaine addict whose mother worked for Dulin as a housekeeper, after she tried to cash a forged check drawn on Dulin's account.

Potter told police that Burrows, a petty thief she mistakenly thought had burglarized her trailer a few weeks earlier, and his friend Ralph Frye, had forced her to drive to Dulin's house so that she could borrow money from him. She said Burrows shot Dulin after a struggle. When Frye was arrested, he gave police a tape-recorded statement that echoed Potter's account.

Even though Burrows insisted he was with friends in another county the night of the crime, he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. (Potter and Frye were convicted of aiding and abetting the murderer. She was sentenced to 30 years, he to 23.)

In prison, Potter's conscience began to bother her. "During the crime I was high on cocaine," she says. "Once I started rehabilitation, the weight of what I had done was too great to bear." Finally, last March, she admitted killing Dulin and said she pinned the rap on Burrows and Frye, who were not present or involved in any way, because she was terrified of being sentenced to death. Because of double-jeopardy laws, it is unclear whether she can be tried again.

Frye, 32, whom Burrows' lawyer Kathleen Zellner describes as a "man with an IQ of 70 who was afraid of the police," testified at a court hearing after Potter's confession that he was under the influence of sleeping pills when detectives coached him and forced him to make a taped statement. "They threatened me and told me they could put me away for a long time," Frye says. Though he now insists he had nothing to do with the murder, authorities have yet to act on his petition for release.

In September, Kankakee county court judge John F. Michela ordered Burrows freed pending a new trial. But without the testimony of Potter and Frye, the prosecution has been left with no case to try, and it appears Burrows will finally be able to get on with his life. "I've been dead for five years, and now I'm alive again," he says. "I'm going to take it one day at a time."

Framed for murder, a hapless thief learns the meaning of the blues

He laughs about it now, but during his trial for a 1973 jailhouse murder in Philadelphia, Ed Ryder was mortified as he watched his public defender, Charles Lowenthal, fumble the case and unwittingly cost him 20 years of freedom. Ryder says Lowenthal, now dead, fell asleep on several occasions during the trial and repeatedly had to ask him what witnesses were saying. "I was so frustrated, as God is my witness, I asked my brother to go out and buy a hearing aid for this guy," says Ryder, 43.

Found guilty of stabbing an inmate to death inside Philadelphia's Holmesburg Prison, Ryder received a life sentence and remained a forgotten soul until September 1993, when an appeal by James McCloskey of Centurion Ministries led acting Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Singel to finally grant him clemency. Ryder was stunned when he was called to the warden's office to hear the news. "I said, 'What do I do now?' " he recalls.

Ryder was 23 when, he says, a friend talked him into robbing a neighborhood hustler. "We thought he was loaded because he was a numbers runner," says Ryder. "We were wrong. We got about $50." Arrested just 15 minutes later, Ryder was eventually sent to Holmesburg Prison to await a hearing on the theft charge. Soon after his arrival he tried to break up a fight between black Muslims in his cellblock and Samuel Molten, an inmate who had been openly disdainful of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Ryder ended up in an argument with Molten, which was overheard by a prison guard.

Two days later, Molten was found stabbed to death in his cell. Three Nation of Islam members were charged with murder. So was Ryder, who knew he had little chance of being exonerated after prison officials produced two inmates who said they saw him near Molten's cell before the murder. "I felt helpless watching the case unfold against me," Ryder says. "It was me against a big machine." Lowenthal did no pretrial investigation and failed to adequately cross-examine witnesses.

McCloskey launched his own investigation in 1989. He tracked down the two witnesses who had placed Ryder near the crime scene, and they admitted they had received early parole in exchange for their testimony. "They saw daylight and they ran to it," McCloskey says. Finally, in 1991, McCloskey found another eyewitness who had seen five Nation of Islam members surround Molten in his cell the day of the killing and swore that Ryder was not among them.

During his years in prison, Ryder took the edge off his anger and bitterness by studying jazz trumpet. Still single, he now works construction jobs by day and at night often stands on a downtown Philadelphia street corner performing for small change and the occasional dollar. "Nobody," he says, "appreciates freedom more than I do."

Though freed, one ex-inmate is still serving a life sentence

Blond and trim, Chris Clugston, 34, looks healthy. He isn't. A frequent, ragged cough is, so far, the only outward sign that he is HIV positive. "I was gang-raped in prison," says Clugston, who spend 12 years in Florida prisons for a murder he didn't commit. "They owe me my life."

For Clugston, the nightmare began, without his knowledge, in the early morning hours on Oct. 25, 1981. As the Agora Ballroom in Hallandale, Fla., was closing, two men drove through the parking lot. The passenger fired three shots from a .30-30 rifle. One struck part-time club security guard Bryce Waldman, 19, in the back and killed him.

Before the week was out, police arrested Teddy Menut, an itinerant mechanic who admitted being the driver of the car, and his drinking buddy Jessie Ziegenhagen, who was on probation for a felony. Ziegenhagen admitted being at the club earlier that evening, but both he and Menut blamed the shooting on Clugston, who worked with Menut at a garage and owned a .30-30 Winchester, which is still missing.

Menut claimed that after he got rowdy and was told to leave with Ziegenhagen, he picked up Clugston, who grabbed his rifle and suggested they drive by the club and frighten people there. Menut said he was shocked when Clugston began firing into the crowd.

Clugston claimed he was at home sleeping when the murder occurred. Two trials ended with hung juries, but in the third, Clugston was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. When the verdict was announced, Clugston cried out, "You've made a terrible mistake!"

He discovered just how terrible when he was sent to the Union Correctional Institute at Raiford. "There were life-threatening situations every day," says Clugston, who had no previous criminal record. He says he was sexually assaulted repeatedly by gangs in the shower. Being white in a prison where most of the inmates were black made him a frequent target, he says.

In 1986, a conscience-stricken Teddy Menut decided to recant. In a sworn affidavit, Menut, also serving a life sentence in Raiford for the Waldman murder, admitted that he and Ziegenhagen had stolen Clugston's rifle from his truck and used it to frame him for the murder. "Ziegenhagen was the one who fired the fatal shot that night, and I've been going with the scheme," he wrote. But just three weeks after Menut announced his change of heart, Ziegenhagen, who had been granted immunity for his testimony against Clugston, was shot to death in an unrelated dispute with another man. Judge Thomas Coker, who had sentenced Clugston to prison, refused to grant him a new trial on the grounds that Ziegenhagen could no longer testify. The decision robbed Clugston of what he thought was his last hope. "I thought I would never be free," he says.

Finally, after Clugston had exhausted all other appeals and had learned he was HIV positive, the Florida clemency board agreed to consider his case in 1993. Clugston was pitching horseshoes in the jail yard last July when a fellow inmate told him he had just heard a news report that his sentence had been commuted. "I got mad because I thought he was playing with me," says Clugston. Now, after rejoining his parents in Bethesda, Md., he says the one thing he has learned from his ordeal is that no one is immune from injustice. "What happened to me could happen to anyone," Clugston says. "If it happened to me, it could happen to you."

DAVID GROGAN
ROCHELLE JONES in Richmond and Bethesda, JONI H. BLACKMAN in Sheldon and HUGH BRONSTEIN in Philadelphia

  • Contributors:
  • Rochelle Jones,
  • Joni H. Blackman,
  • Hugh Bronstein.