After Benjamin Joseph was robbed at gunpoint outside his New Orleans home one night almost nine years ago, he described his attacker to the police: a Black man with a slim build who was wearing a pullover hoodie, Joseph said.
Eighteen hours later, the police made a curious decision. They arrested a teenager named Yutico Briley — even though he was heavyset and wearing a zip-up hoodie — while he was walking in Joseph’s neighborhood. Briley was Black and carrying a gun, which was evidently enough for officers to consider him a suspect.
From there, the case followed a course that’s more common than it should be. The police and prosecutors moved aggressively, seeming to care more about securing a conviction than making sure they were convicting the right person.
Instead of putting together a lineup that included Briley and several other men, the police brought him — and him alone — to Joseph and asked if Briley was the robber. “It seemed really unprofessional,” Joseph would say later. It is also a common way to produce false identification, research has found. Sure enough, Joseph identified Briley as the robber.
Later, investigators failed to collect evidence that could have cleared Briley, like security-camera footage and cellphone records that would have confirmed where he was when the robbery occurred. His original lawyers failed to do so, too. By the time other lawyers tried to do it, the records had been erased.
Ultimately, a jury convicted Briley based largely on Joseph’s identification, and a judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison without the possibility of parole. He had no prior violent convictions on his record. It was a virtual life sentence for a 19-year-old convicted of a single crime on extremely thin evidence.
‘So many other Yuticos’
There are almost certainly tens of thousands of Americans who are now imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. (Several studies have suggested a nationwide wrongful conviction rate of at least 3 percent.) A disproportionate share of the wrongly convicted are Black men.
By now, you’ve probably read at least a few stories about these injustices. They can be both depressing and enraging. But I encourage you to make some time today or this week to read the story of Yutico Briley. It appears in The Times Magazine, written by my colleague Emily Bazelon. It is in many ways “crushingly ordinary,” as Emily says. But it is also different.
It’s an unusually personal story for Emily, about what happened after Briley contacted her from prison and she then decided to research his case. It is also a story of what can happen when prosecutors and judges are willing to revisit old cases with open minds.
“There are so many other Yuticos sitting in jail,” Jason Williams, the New Orleans district attorney, who took office this year, told Emily.
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