Top 10 Times People Were Proven Innocent After Long Convictions

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Top 10 Times People Were Proven Innocent After Long Convictions

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent? For this list, we'll be looking at various people who were held in prison for a prolonged period of time before they were declared not guilty. Our countdown includes The Ford Heights Four, Johnny Briscoe, Richard Phillips, and more!
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Top 10 People Who Were Proven Innocent After Long Convictions


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 people who were proven innocent after long convictions.

For this list, we’ll be looking at various people who were held in prison for a prolonged period of time before they were declared not guilty.

Which of these stories do you find the most infuriating? Let us know in the comments!

#10: Joseph Sledge

When Josephine and Aileen Davis were found dead in Elizabethtown, North Carolina in September 1976, suspicions turned to escaped convict Joseph Sledge. He was serving four years for larceny, but had escaped to avoid violent attacks within the prison camp. After he was caught, two of Sledge’s fellow inmates, Herman Baker and Donnie Sutton, told authorities that Sledge had confessed to the murders. Sledge was found guilty and given two consecutive life sentences. In 2012 however, DNA evidence cleared Sledge of the crime. The following year, Herman Baker admitted that he lied to receive early parole and $3,000. Sutton had received a similar reward. Sledge was released from prison after 36 years, and has been awarded nearly $5 million in compensation and lawsuit winnings.

#9: The Ford Heights Four

In May 1978, Lawrence Lionberg and his fiancé Carol Schmal were fatally shot in Ford Heights, Illinois. Police suspected four men, Dennis Williams, Verneal Jimerson, Kenneth Adams and Willie Rainge. At their trial, the prosecution eliminated all black jurors, and introduced false forensic evidence. Police offered two so-called “witnesses” deals in exchange for false testimony, and decided not to tell the defense that an actual witness had identified completely different men. William and Jimerson were sentenced to death, Rainge received life in prison and Adams got 75 years. They spent nearly two decades in prison before three journalism students investigated and helped get the men released in 1996. After they were freed, the four were awarded a record-breaking sum of $36 million.

#8: Craig Coley

Vietnam War veteran Craig Coley had recently split from Rhonda Wicht, his girlfriend of two years in 1978. So when she and her four-year-old son were found dead in their L.A. apartment, Coley was seen as the prime suspect. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1980. Following new evidence and DNA testing, Coley was found innocent of the crime. Investigators placed the blame on false testimony and said the original detective had either intentionally or unintentionally botched the case. Coley was officially pardoned in 2017, having spent nearly 38 years in prison. He was awarded $21 million in restitution.

#7: Dewey Bozella

Dewey Bozella has led an incredibly difficult life. He witnessed his father take his mother’s life, saw three of his brothers pass away, and in 1983, he was wrongfully convicted of murder. Bozella was sentenced to 20 years to life after being accused of killing 92-year-old Emma Crapser in her New York apartment. He spent time in Sing Sing, where he became a prison boxing champion. Thanks to the Innocence Project, lawyers eventually found evidence for the case that had been previously hidden. Bozella had been framed. After being released in 2009 after 26 years, he made his professional boxing debut in 2011. Bozella defeated boxer Larry Hopkins by unanimous decision at the Staples Center.

#6: Johnny Briscoe

On October 21, 1982, a man named Larry Smith assaulted a woman in her apartment in St. Louis, and told her that his name was Johnny Briscoe - one of his acquaintances. He then called her from a payphone outside Briscoe’s residence to repeat the claim. When the real Briscoe was brought to a police line-up, he was the only one in an orange prison jumpsuit, and the woman identified him as the culprit. Sketchy forensic evidence was used to convict him. For five months of his subsequent sentence, he wound up in a cell next to Larry Smith! His request for DNA testing was initially refused; when a test was conducted in 2006, it proved that he’d been framed. He was released after serving 23 years.

#5: David Bryant

On the morning of March 29, 1975, the body of eight year old Karen Smith was found in a stairwell in the Bronx. David Bryant, who had been arrested for misconduct before, was brought in for questioning. According to him, he was beaten by officers until he falsely confessed. Bryant was found guilty and sentenced to 25-to-life. Following further blood tests in the 2010s, Bryant’s conviction was vacated and he was released in 2013. But the New York Supreme Court overruled the decision and put Bryant back in jail. Luckily, Bryant’s brief release caught the attention of a former witness, who had been 10 at the time, and admitted that police had coached him to lie in court. Following another petition, Bryant was fully free after 42 years.

#4: Walter Forbes

Walter Forbes intervened in a bar fight between two people in 1982 in Jackson, Michigan. One of the fighters, Dennis Hall, shot Forbes the next day. Fortunately, he survived. When Hall perished in an apartment fire later on, investigators suspected arson. A witness named Annice Kennebrew told the authorities that she saw Forbes burning down the apartment complex. While her testimony didn’t match the evidence, he was convicted and sent to prison. It wasn’t until decades later that Kennebrew admitted she lied because she’d been threatened by men in the neighbourhood. Forbes was finally released from prison in 2020 after serving 37 years.

#3: Glenn Ford

Louisiana native Glenn Ford was the longest-serving death row inmate to ever be exonerated. In 1983, the body of jewelry store owner Isadore Rozeman was found in his store. Since Glenn Ford was working as his yard man at the time and was said to be near the scene of the crime, he was arrested. He was given a defense team that wasn’t accustomed to serious cases, and prosecutors made sure that the jury was all-white. There was no weapon connecting him to the crime, but Ford was sentenced to death. His conviction was overturned when Jake Robinson was identified as the real culprit. Ford was released from prison after 30 years in 2014. Unfortunately, he passed away from lung cancer complications the next year.


#2: Wilbert Jones

After a nurse was assaulted in October of 1971, Wilbert Jones was arrested and placed in a police line-up. The nurse identified him as a suspect, but had reservations because his voice and height seemed different from the man who attacked her. Regardless, the jury took her testimony and no other evidence and sentenced Jones to life. Innocent Project New Orleans later discovered that similar crimes took place around the same time. They eventually found a man who matched the nurse’s original description of her assailant. Unfortunately, his crimes were never brought up when the case was first tried. In light of this new information, Jones was released in 2017 after almost 45 years in prison.

#1: Richard Phillips

This Michigan man is the longest-serving innocent man in American history, having spent over 45 years in prison. In March 1972, 21-year-old Gregory Harris was found dead. Harris’ brother-in-law, Fred Mitchell, testified against Richard Phillips and another man, Richard Palombo. Prosecutors had cut Mitchell a deal for lenient sentencing in another case. His story was riddled with inconsistencies, but was still enough to put Phillips and Palombo away for life. In 2010, Palombo admitted that although he’d handed Mitchell his gun, it was Mitchell who fired the fatal shots, and Phillips wasn’t even there. In 2014 the Michigan Innocence Clinic studied the case and managed to free Phillips in December 2017. Palombo, on the other hand, died in prison of coronavirus in April 2020.
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