Freed from jail but not free of problems

Published: Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 at 12:52 p.m.

Hosea Davis was found dead last month in an alley in Pittsburgh, shot at least 10 times. He was 37 years old.

It had been more than a decade since the Innocence Institute of Point Park University showed that Davis had been wrongfully convicted of murdering a childhood friend. The investigation helped lead to Davis' early release from a prison sentence of 20 to 30 years.

I helped Point Park journalism professor Bill Moushey, director of the now-shuttered institute, look into the case as a graduate student there. In a story for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, we reported that the case's key witness admitted at least four times that she had lied on the stand.

She had been drinking heavily on the night of the killing before police interrogated her from 4:30 to 11 a.m. She had a lengthy criminal record, was wanted on an outstanding warrant and had the dead man's blood on her clothes at the time.

"I was so scared that I was going to be charged with a crime, so I told them what they wanted to know for them to let me go," the woman later admitted in a call that Davis' mother caught on tape.

Davis' story is all-too typical of wrongful convictions. Rather than the DNA cases dramatized in popular culture, wrongful convictions more often involve false confessions, eyewitnesses wrongly identifying suspects and witnesses lying for deals.

Another forgotten part of those stories is that wrongfully convicted people often face difficulties once released after years in prison.

Davis provided a rare positive story when he made the news last year for intervening to save a girl from being stabbed in a Target store. But the Post-Gazette reported that police suspect he was attempting to provide someone with heroin when he was killed.

"He didn't have a chance," Moushey said when I called him last week to talk about the case.

There were a record 87 exonerations in the United States in 2013, according to a recent study.

Moushey and his students investigated 17 wrongful conviction claims that resulted in exonerations or plea deals. While the institute was closed last year after 11 years, more than 10 cases that it investigated are still pending.

Moushey said most of the exonerees he's known face problems after they're freed. Pennsylvania lacks a law to compensate the wrongfully convicted, so they usually leave prison without so much as an apology.

Florida law entitles the wrongfully convicted to receive $50,000 for each year they were imprisoned plus free college tuition. But the law has a "clean hands" provision prohibiting the state from paying anyone with a prior felony.

One of Moushey's maxims was that there were no angels in the cases the institute investigated. Just because someone has a criminal record doesn't give police the right to frame them for a crime they didn't commit.

And if someone has a record, it makes sense to help them stay to the straight and narrow once released.

Hosea Davis was no saint, but that didn't change the fact that someone lied to put him behind bars for decades. His death was a tragic reminder that winning your freedom doesn't guarantee that life will be better on the outside.

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