Criminal Justice and Wrongful Convictions from around the World

“Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” – Sir William Blackstone

Below are quick clicks on global cases of wrongful convictions…

In prison since 2003, yet authorities knew man wrongfully convicted in 2007

Dutch citizen, Romano van der Dussen, was found guilty of three sexual assaults in 2003. He has shockingly remained in prison despite DNA evidence in 2007 proving he was not the perpetrator. Van der Dussen was convicted in May 2005 and sentenced to 15 and a half years imprisonment, in addition to being remanded for 1 year and 7 months.

“I Didn’t Know What the Sky Looked Like Any More”: Ricky Jackson Exonerated After 39 Years in Jail

“An Ohio man has been freed from prison after spending 39 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Ricky Jackson, a 59-year old African-American man, had been jailed since 1975 on a murder conviction. The prosecution’s case was based on the testimony of a 13-year-old witness. After a 2011 investigation, the witness recanted his testimony, saying he had implicated Jackson and two others under police coercion.”

New York City, state, housing authority to pay $9 million to end lawsuits by wrongly convicted, imprisoned pair

Danny Colon (50) and Anthony Ortiz (44) spent 16 years behind bars for a crime they did not commit. A $9 million settlement will be paid to the pair after they successfully sued New York City, the state, and the city housing authority for verdicts which put them in jail and left them there for 16 years despite their innocence. Ortiz will receive $6.5 million and Colon will get $2.5 million, according to The Wall Street Journal report.

For the First Time Ever, a Prosecutor Will Go to Jail for Wrongfully Convicting an Innocent Man

Former Texas prosecutor and state judge, Ken Anderson, who intentionally withheld evidence that could have cleared Michael Morton – an innocent man who, as a result, spent 25 years in prison- agreed to spend 10 days in prison and complete 500 hours of community service.

“I give speeches about the Innocence Movement, and tell stories from real cases, all around the world. No matter where I am, when I finish speaking the first question usually is, “What happened to the police/prosecutors who did this to the poor guy?” The answer is almost always, “Nothing,” or worse, “The police officer was promoted and now is the chief of his department.” The adage that the powerful go unpunished is no truer or more visible than with police officers and prosecutors in America–even when they send innocent people to prison from their misconduct,” writes Mark Godsey, Carmichael Professor of Law and Director of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.





I did not speak out

I did not speak out

*Inspired by the editorial in today’s TimesLive.




WJP scoops Webber Wentzel Legal Journalist of the Year Award

Ruth Hopkins, senior journalist at the Wits Justice Project

Ruth Hopkins, senior journalist at the Wits Justice Project


Ruth Hopkins, winner of the print category, and Pierre de Vos, Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town

Ruth Hopkins, winner of the print category, and Pierre de Vos, Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town










For the fourth year in a row, the Wits Justice Project has been awarded the prestigious Webber Wentzel Legal Journalist of the Year Award.

On 5 November 2014, our senior journalist, Ruth Hopkins was named winner in the print category for her two stories: Presumed innocent, rotting in jail and  Seven years stuck in jail.

Read the 2014 Legal Journalist of the Year Award press release here.

Justice for Breakfast: Reflections on the complexities of policing in South Africa today

Justice for Breakfast Roundtable discussions have been running since late 2012

Justice for Breakfast Roundtable discussions have been running since late 2012

On 27 November 2014, the Wits Justice Project, together with Wits Public Safety Programme, hosted their regular Justice for Breakfast Roundtable discussion, where practitioners, academics, and activists, come together to talk about a particular issue at hand and deliberated on possible solutions.

The discussion focused on the broader value of the findings of the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry for policing in South Africa. The discussion also highlighted parallels between the Commission’s findings and the research conducted by the Wits Justice Project into police/community relations in Sophiatown.

Lead discussant Amanda Dissel, Secretary to the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry and delegate in South Africa for the Geneva-based Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), got the ball rolling by giving a background of the commission.

Amanda Dissel

Amanda Dissel presenting findings of the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry


The Khayelitsha Commission was established on 24 August 2012 by the Premier of the Western Cape to investigate allegations of inefficiency of the South African Police Service (SAPS) stationed at three Khayelitsha police stations (Khayelitsha Site B, Lingelethu West and Harare). The Commission was also asked to look into the breakdown of the relationship between the Khayelitsha community and members of the SAPS working in the area.

The Commission zoomed in on the day-to-day technical complexities of policing and how they affect the community.

Some key Issues/Findings:

  1. There was an evident breakdown of effective policing
  2. Lack of allocation of sufficient human resources. The Commission found out that the ratio of police officer to community members was 111:100K
  3. There was an absence of strategy on how members of the SAPS should be policing at informal settlements. There was no on-going relationship between the police and informal settlement dwellers, resulting in negative association
  4. Detective Services:  Extremely low conviction rate when it comes to serious crimes.

Poor investigation

Very high workload: 10 new detectives have been reallocated to Khayelitsha, but they had to be taken from another police station.

Huge backlogs

Lack of crime intelligence

  1. Relations and role of the community: Community Policing Forums (CPF) was functioning poorly due to lack of resources and political contestation within the community.

The Commission came up with 20 recommendations, which can be read on the final report.

Questions and Comment emanating from the floor

  1. Public bystanders: what does it mean to be a bystander in South African context and what effect does it have to be continuously exposed to crime and violence? Are we not creating a country of traumatized citizens?
  2. Would a Commission appointed by the ANC come up with the same or similar findings?
  3. Who benefits from the instability of Khayelitsha?
  4. Should we be allocating resources into strengthening the police or the community?
  5. Community-based approaches to policing have a potential, but there is a lack of data to measure their effectiveness.
  6. Money is at the core of everything. People can easily evade being punished for breaking the law through bribery. If you have money, you can buy ‘justice’.
  7. The aim is not to put people in prison. It’s about giving regular folks the dignity, enshrined in the constitution, to feel safe at their homes and surroundings.

Both the Wits Justice Project’s investigation of Sophiatown and the Khayelitsha Commission revealed that there is a breakdown in the relationship between the police and the community they serve. There is loss of trust in the police’s ability to perform their job effectively. It is clear from the discussion that policing is a multifaceted issue that needs meaningful engagement from all stakeholders involved.

Has international law afforded Africa peace and justice?

Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. Image by Martin Rhodes

Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. Image by Martin Rhodes

Chairing a discussion titled Transitional Justice at a Crossroads: Lessons from South Africa, Comparative Perspectives, and Ideas for the Future, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke explained why it is necessary to integrate international law into domestic legislative processes.

Panelists included: Judge Sang-Hyun Song (President, International Criminal Court), Delphine Serumaga (Executive Director, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation), Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza SC (Advocate of the High Court of South Africa), Advocate Allan Ngari (Transnational Threats and International Crimes Division, Institute for Security Studies).

The panel discussion was held at Wits Great Hall on September 8th. The Wits Justice Project co-hosted the discussion, together with Wits University, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Pretoria, and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies.

Below are remarks from Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke…

Has international law afforded us in Africa peace and justice? The seductive answer is “no”. And yet the picture is chequered.

Our continent has produced not only the bad and ugly but also the good. A good starting point would be the criticism that the normative scheme of international law is “un-African”.

It is an unwarranted imposition of neoliberal and Eurocentric notions on a world order that is moved, not by law, but by unequal power relations between developed and under-developed nations. It is so that the realpolitik places power and the vital security and the commercial interests of nations ahead of the nicety ethics and international law norms of peace and justice.

But realpolitik cannot and should not oust the usefulness of an international order under the rule of law. Public international law developed because the world order could not countenance military aggression or wars.

Nor could it sit back as citizens of authoritarian state suffer internal war, insurgency or crimes against humanity. The atrocities of World War II led to a global recognition of the need to protect human life and welfare by holding states accountable to a universally accepted code.

International law encompasses humaneness, compassion, human dignity and conformity to the basic norms of collective unity. Its underlying norms are in harmony with the African principle of ubuntu.

International pressure has undoubtedly played a role in ending, or limiting, suffering and injustice in African states. Had it not been for the imposition of economic sanctions and an arms embargo by the UN Security Council on apartheid South Africa, President FW de Klerk’s decision to abandon apartheid in 1990 might have been fatally delayed.

The redirection and withdrawal of aid by foreign donors has arguably been the main driving force behind the speedy nullification of the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act by the Ugandan Supreme Court.

Last year, the international community succeeded in exerting pressure on Rwanda to end its military support of the M23 rebel group in eastern Congo. The loss of Rwanda’s support and the bolstered military capacity of UN peacekeeping troops in the area left the group with no choice but to end its protracted military insurgency in December of last year.

International law has played a role in maintaining peace and justice on the continent. Africans have been the primary beneficiaries of the emerging Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm.

Following its invocation in Kenya in 2007/08 and Côte d’Ivoire in 2011, the international community successfully intervened in both the Central African Republic and South Sudan last year to prevent the mass slaughter of civilians on religious and ethnic grounds.

Our own country, South Africa has intervened under the African Union security system in domestic insurgencies in the Central African Republic, Burundi and elsewhere on the continent to restore peace and stability.

Africa needs adequate space to accelerate social and economic development – to banish poverty, ignorance and ill-health as its people find their true potential. Peace, stability and justice are prerequisites for the second-coming. Our states and so too our judiciaries should look to the norms of international law to enrich our domestic settings.

Domestic courts on the continent will do well to look at international law obligations for guidance when giving meaning to their constitutions and municipal law.

In Glenister v President of the Republic of South Africa, our Court drew from the country’s international obligations in order to give flesh to the constitutional dictate to set up a dedicated and independent corruption fighting unit.

Many countries in Africa are emerging from dire conflicts. They are adopting new constitutions infused with international law principles and endorse international criminal justice. More and more African countries are trying to come to terms with a past characterised by external aggression, insurgency and sometimes pervasive ethnic conflict and violence.

We should revert to the indispensable notion of conflict resolution through mediation and reconciliation under law and justice. After all, human solidarity is deeply embedded in African traditions.

Of course, sometimes international law falters as it fails to bring peace and justice. The strictures of international law, combined with relentless international pressure, were eventually successful in persuading South Africa to withdraw from its illegal occupation of Namibia. But international law, while equally clear, has been less effective in relation to the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza (which Israel continues to occupy from outside, through its control of most of Gaza’s border crossings, its airspace and its offshore waters).

There can’t be peace and stability without justice, and there cannot be justice without the rule of law.

Read the edited versions of the address as they appeared in the witsLEADER publication and City Press.

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest: New Film Captures Florida Prisoner’s Shocking Ordeal Behind Bars

In 1980, Mark DeFriest was sentenced to four years in prison for a minor crime (theft). After the passing of his father in 1979, he had a dispute with his stepmother and authorities over the will of his father. He took his father’s tools before they were probated, was later arrested and charged with stealing tools that were willed to him by his father. Thirty four years later, Mark is still in prison.

“They charged him with attempted murder. He was placed in solitary confinement; lived in total darkness in a small cell. He was not allowed to communicate. There were post orders and in the post orders, it states:
1) No clothes for prisoner
2) No mattress or sheets
3) No matches, cigarettes, etc.
4) Conversations limited to business only
Mr DeFriest was denied of all toiletries, he was deprived of toilet paper, soap, tissue, toothpaste, The water was turned off in his cell, he could not flush his toilet, he could not bathe or shower, he had to eat without utensils and in the dark.” -DeFriest’s lawyer, John Middleton, detailing how Mark was treated after discharging a gun against a prison wall.

Amy Goodman talks to the director of the film, Gabriel London.Visit DemocracyNow for more. Also visit for updates.

Related Readings

Commission takes up Mark DeFriest case

DeFriest: Mental Illness Behind Bars

Will ‘Houdini of Prison’ Mark DeFriest Ever Escape Lockup?

Justice System: what’s making headlines?

Small Claims court opens its doors in Khayelitsha

Khayelitsha Community at the launch of Small Claims Court

“Khayelitsha Community at the launch of Small Claims Court.” Photo by Johnnie Issac

Launched on Friday (14 November 2014), the small claims court will assist people settle minor civil disputes for amounts of up to R15 000. The court was established in 2010, then became inactive, but has now been relaunched and will spare community members from traveling outside Khayelitsha to lodge their claims.

“The court will assist people dissatisfied with the quality of services they paid for and who want to reclaim money. The court will spare people from Khayelitsha having to travel to Wynberg to lodge their claims.

The relaunch was attended by government officials from the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, members of South African Police Service, the Legal Aid Board, City Council officials, members of the Khayelitsha community and several interest groups.”

[Lenasia] Land scammer to be sentenced

“A former City of Johannesburg employee is expected to be sentenced on Tuesday at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court for his involvement in the illegal sale of state land in Lenasia.

Sifiso Handsome Litau resigned from his post during internal disciplinary proceedings where three witnesses who had bought land from him were giving evidence against him.

In July he was found guilty of illegally selling land in Lenasia Extension 13.”

Charles Manson gets license to wed 26-year-old he said he wouldn’t marry

“The 80-year-old inmate, convicted of conspiracy to commit multiple murders, has obtained a license to wed Afton Elaine Burton, 26, who as a teenager moved to California to be near him and has visited him for seven years.

According to records with the Kings County Clerk-Recorder, Manson and Burton applied for the marriage license Nov. 7.”



ConCourt to rule on mentally disabled accused

“At the centre of the matter are two people who were alleged to have committed crimes but were declared unfit to stand trial because they were not able to understand basic court proceedings.

One, a 35-year-old man with Down syndrome, was arrested and charged last year over the rape of an 11-year-old girl.

The other has a severe mental disability, and was arrested and charged with the murder of a 14-year-old girl in 2005 when he, too, was 14.

Neither of the criminal matters have been finalised.”

DR Congo:Police Operation Kills 51 Youth

“Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo summarily killed at least 51 youth and forcibly disappeared 33 others during an anti-crime campaign that began a year ago, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. “Operation Likofi,” which lasted from November 2013 to February 2014, targeted alleged gang members in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa …

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews in Kinshasa with 107 witnesses, family members of victims, police officers who participated in Operation Likofi, government officials, and others. Human Rights Watch also released new video footage and photographs, including of suspected kuluna who were killed during Operation Likofi and interviews with their relatives.”




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