Former President Donald Trump spent his last remaining days in office putting more people to death than any president has in decades. Most of those individuals had stories that should have saved them from capital punishment. Perhaps that’s why so many pro bono lawyers are spending dozens of hours trying to free wrongfully imprisoned men and women this year — and why the mainstream media is actually paying attention.
Usually, these cases were ruled upon decades ago. The defendants never acknowledged guilt. The prosecution made huge mistakes. Witnesses later recanted sworn testimony. The Attorney General who put the case to bed so long ago will never admit wrongdoing — and of course they don’t want an otherwise “good” record stained by a reversal.
With all these forces at work, it can be difficult to free men and women who were wrongfully convicted. While that might not make sense from a moral standpoint, it does make sense from a legal one.
The wrongfully imprisoned Trent Wells was convicted of rape and burglary in 1985. It took the jury 26 minutes to decide his fate. He was 19 and sentenced to 50 years without parole. He has maintained his innocence. No witnesses, physical evidence, or DNA tied him to the scene of the crime. No rape kit was ever received in court because it was lost. The ruling was vacated in 2021 — 36 years later.
It proved to be a stroke of luck for Wells.
The case hinged upon changes to juror laws in the years since the crime was committed. Back then, he was convicted in a 10-2 decision. Unamity was not required for that conviction. That law has since changed, and jurors are required to provide a unanimous decision before convictions are made.
A few months after the Wells verdict was vacated, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court decided that the new laws should not apply to old cases because of the drain on state resources or “stale” evidence.