Photo by Daily Herald and Daily Herald Staff Photographer Bob Chwedyk
Caption for Photo:
Mike Ensdorf, professor of communications at Roosevelt University, unpacks an exhibit of photos of wrongfully convicted Americans called “The Innocents: Headshots,” that will be on display beginning today (Nov. 14) through January 13 at the college’s Schaumburg campus
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By Eric Peterson
A photo exhibit of the faces and stories of 45 wrongfully convicted Americans will be unveiled at Roosevelt University in Schaumburg today, with the aim of raising awareness and making such cases less likely in the future.
Titled “The Innocents: Headshots,” the exhibit features the work of nationally known photographer Taryn Simon and highlights 45 individuals who were sentenced to either death or life in prison but later exonerated by DNA evidence.
The exhibit particularly highlights the unreliability of eyewitness memory and the role it’s played in the majority of wrongful convictions, said Shari Berkowitz, a psychology professor at the university.
Among the Chicago area cases represented are two members of the “Ford Heights Four” — Verneal Jimerson and Dennis Williams — who were wrongfully convicted of a 1978 double murder in what was then East Chicago Heights; and Paula Gray, a borderline mentally disabled 17-year-old, whose confessed involvement in the crime she knew nothing about implicated both her and the four falsely accused men.
Another local case featured is that of Ronald Jones, who served eight years of a death sentence after being wrongfully convicted of a rape and murder on the South Side of Chicago.
Berkowitz said faulty eyewitness memories have been a key component of 76 percent of convictions that have since been proven wrong.
“It’s the leading cause of wrongful convictions,” she said.
Berkowitz said this ties into her area of expertise — memory. These cases are not about malicious lies on the witness stand, but people who made genuine mistakes of memory.
She cites the story of Ronald Cotton, who was wrongly convicted of the rape of college student Jennifer Thompson in North Carolina in the early ‘80s. Even when DNA evidence 10 1/2 years later pointed to a man named Bobby Poole as the guilty party, Thompson said she still did not recognize Poole as her attacker. But she and Cotton have since become friends who’ve traveled the country talking about the issue of memory and wrongful convictions.
Berkowitz’s message is not that jurors should enter a trial unwilling to convict, but that they should be aware of the reasons why they should not put complete faith in eyewitnesses’ memories. Many factors — including stress — can affect the reliability of memory, Berkowitz said.
“I’m optimistic, but it’s going to take a while,” Berkowitz said. “It inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing and hopefully inspire other people along the way.”
The exhibit’s display at Roosevelt was co-organized by Berkowitz and political science Professor Bethany Barratt, who directs Roosevelt’s Joseph Loundy Human Rights project. Although both faculty members come to the issue from different perspectives, it’s an important one to both their fields.
It’s also an appropriate one for Roosevelt, for which social justice is a key aspect of its charter, Berkowitz said.
“The Innocents: Headshots” will be displayed through Jan. 13 in the rotunda gallery just inside the main entrance of the university’s Schaumburg campus at 1400 N. Roosevelt Blvd.
“Everybody sees the work. It’s not a closed-off space,” said Michael Ensdorf, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the university’s Gage Gallery. “The descriptions and stories are quite detailed. It takes some time to see the whole exhibit.”
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