November 29, 2022

Opinion

How many innocent people remain in prison?

Adnan Syed, center right, leaves the courthouse after the hearing on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Baltimore. A Baltimore judge ordered the release of  Syed after overturning his conviction for the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee — a case that was chronicled in the hit podcast “Serial,” a true-crime series that transfixed listeners and revolutionized the genre.  (Jerry Jackson/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

Every once in awhile, you meet someone who changes the trajectory of your life.

For me, that person was Darrel Parker, a gentle, kind man who worked in the Moline Parks Department.

In the early 1990s, I just had begun covering Moline City Hall and a friend told me Darrel was a convicted murderer who maintained his innocence.

I was just 25 and had never thought much about people serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. It was a different era, a time when people put much more faith in institutions.

Some folks have this misguided notion that newsrooms are full of bleeding-heart liberals. In my 35 years in the news business, that has not been my experience. When I was a young reporter in Texas, my managing editor made news decisions based on the color of a crime victim’s skin.

Scott Reeder

When I worked as a police reporter in the Midwest the night city editor, was a man not prone to nuance. If someone was accused of a crime, they were automatically a “mope.”

Perched on his throne of white privilege, never was there an iota of doubt expressed that the person was guilty. We might as well have slapped the word “guilty” across the accused forehead.

But then I met Darrel Parker.

He was a lot like me: white, male, a farm boy and an Iowa State graduate. He’d gone to prison when he was about the same age as I was at the time we met.

Parker suffered the tragedy of having his wife murdered in 1955 and the misfortune a few days later of being interrogated by John E. Reid, a so-called “expert” in police interrogation. After more than 24 hours of coercion Parker confessed to a crime he didn’t commit.

Although he immediately recanted, a jury convicted him based on that confession alone. The confession made Reid famous. And what is now known as the “Reid technique” has become the standard form of suspect interviews for police departments across the country. It started with a false confession.

Decades later, a serial killer on death row confessed to the murder. And a search of police files found the killer’s car was parked in front of the Parker home the day of the murder. That and other information was never shared with the defense.

It took the state of Nebraska more then 60 years to acknowledge they made a mistake in Parker’s case and hand him a check for $500,000.

Parker, who died in February at age 90, never sued. He just asked the state of Nebraska to do the right thing. It would be easy to believe Parker’s case is an anomaly.

But I don’t believe that is the case. I’ve met too many innocent people who have done time.

Last week, Adnan Syed had his murder conviction thrown out by a Maryland judge. He became famous during the first season of the podcast “Serial.” His defense attorney was bad. Police didn’t pursue alternate suspects. And worse yet, they never informed the defense of the existence of these alternate suspects. An innocent man may have served more than 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

In 2016, I had never listened to a podcast. But when I was driving across Illinois with my wife we decided to listen to “Serial.” About halfway through, I exclaimed, “This is really interesting, but I know a case that is even more interesting.”

Before the week was out, I was on the phone with Jay Pierce, head of the NPR affiliate WVIK-FM and together with producer Lacy Scarmana we produced a podcast that rose to No. 2 in the world on the iTunes charts.

Subsequently, I investigated the case of Barton McNeil, a Bloomington man who was convicted of murder and serving a life sentence. I believe he is innocent and was convicted based on faulty police work and poor legal representation.

I continue to work for his freedom. If you are interested in the case, listen to season 2 of the podcast “Suspect Convictions.”

In the dozens of wrongful convictions I’ve written about, it’s rare to see a police officer disciplined even in cases involving perjury or incompetence.

Folks sometimes want to know why I ask tough questions of the police. Many work hard and do a good job. Others don’t. None is infallible.

I have met many victims of violent crimes whose cases were not vigorously pursued. Worse yet, I’ve looked into the eyes of too many people convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.

If journalists don’t hold those in power accountable, who will?

• Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at: sreeder@illinoistimes.com.

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at: sreeder@illinoistimes.com.