We all want to think the criminal justice system, though not infallible, usually gets it right (the 60 Days In experiment routing out corruption not withstanding). But in some cases, it falls far short of the truth and innocent people can spend years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Some of those are lucky enough to be exonerated, but not before spending decades inside.
Accused by a former Mafia hit man turned FBI informant for the 1965 murder of Edward Deegan, Peter Limone was sentenced to death and spent the next 33 years in prison. It wasn’t until 2000 that a new lawyer found files that proved not only was Limone innocent, but the FBI had known all along that the informant was lying. In 2001, he was released. Limone has since sued the FBI, among others, for $375 million.
Leon Brown and Henry McCollum
The longest serving death row inmate in North Carolina, spending more than 30 years inside, Henry McCollum and his half brother Leon Brown were wrongfully convicted in 1983 of the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Aged only 15 and 19 at the time of the conviction, both of the brothers have been diagnosed as having intellectual disabilities and were coerced into giving false confessions. The brothers were released in 2014 after DNA evidence not only proved their innocence, but pointed to the guilt of a convicted sex offender who had committed similar crimes.
Convicted in 1974 of a brutal rape and kidnapping of a 9-year-old boy, James Bain spent 35 years in prison—the longest sentence at the time for someone wrongfully convicted. Bain became the lead suspect after the victim gave a description of his assailant and said he’d identified himself as ‘Jimmy’. After someone mentioned Bain, the victim took Bain on as his attacker and Bain was arrested, despite the fact he had an alibi and maintained his innocence throughout. In 2009, he was exonerated of the crime through DNA evidence.
For 39 years, Ricky Jackson sat in prison for a crime he didn’t commit—the longest amount of time anyone has served before being proved innocent. Convicted in 1975 with two other young black males, Jackson was accused of murdering a white businessman from Cleveland on the sole evidence of 12-year-old Eddie Vernon’s eyewitness account. Vernon recounted in 2013, citing police coercion. The charges against Jackson were dismissed and in 2014, he was released. He has since been awarded $2 million in compensation.
One of the ‘Angola Three,’ not only was Albert Woodfox wrongfully convicted on the 1972 murder of a prison guard, but he is also the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the US, spending 43 years in continuous isolation in a small cell, let out for only an hour a day to exercise in the yard. He was finally released in 2016 after his conviction was overturned, with Woodfox pleading no contest for lesser charges of burglary and manslaughter.