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  • Caroline McCord

Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Isaiah Andrews and Wrongful Incarceration In America

In 1976, Isaiah Andrews was convicted of murder and incarcerated for the brutal stabbing of his wife, Regina Andrews. He was a Black man, thirty-nine years old, tried and found guilty in Cleveland, Ohio. And on March 10, 2022, he was found innocent and freed—after spending more than half of his life in prison.

The last day of Ms. Andrews’ life was September 18, 1974. Isaiah Andrews last saw her at 8 a.m. that morning and reported her missing upon returning to the hotel room they were living in at the time. Ms. Andrews’ body was found that very afternoon in the parking lot of a swimming pool, viciously stabbed and wrapped in linen.

From the moment his wife was found dead, Mr. Andrews affirmed his innocence. Not a shred of physical evidence linked him to the crime—in fact, not a drop of either Isaiah or Regina’s blood was ever found in their hotel room or their car, although Regina’s murder was bloody and gruesome.

Almost immediately, the Cleveland police honed in on another suspect: Willie H. Watts, who at the time was desperately selling his mother’s belongings in an attempt to escape Cleveland. Mr. Watts was arrested but quickly released upon proving an alibi that conflicted with Ms. Andrews’ time of death.

After his initial arrest and release, Mr. Watts was never mentioned again in court documents, trial transcripts, case discovery, or newspaper reports: an inconsistency that is now the subject of both Mr. Andrews’ retrial and current lawsuit against the state of Ohio. For all intents and purposes, Mr. Watts was entirely scrubbed from the canon of Ms. Andrews’ murder until over four decades later.

And Mr. Andrews—who was not only physically unlinked to the crime, but also had no motive and never once confessed—was arrested, tried, and jailed in his place.

When the Innocence Project first began working with Mr. Andrews in 2015, they were unable to find any documentation of Mr. Watts at all, until a 2019 request for DNA by Mr. Andrews’ attorneys revealed that he had once been a prime suspect in Ms. Andrews’ death and that his alibi was no longer applicable. In light of this imperative detail implicating an alternate suspect—which was notably never presented to Andrews’ initial defense team, the judge that presided over his trial, or the jury that found him guilty—Mr. Andrews had ample reason to request a retrial.

It was too late for Ms. Andrews to receive true justice; Watts died in 2011 and was never tried for or charged with her murder. But for Mr. Andrews, recompense—albeit long overdue —was finally enacted this March. At 84 years old, Mr. Andrews was found not guilty and walked out of the courtroom a free, legally innocent man. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Mr. Andrews suffered the third-longest wrongful incarceration in American history.

Although Mr. Andrews was unjustly imprisoned for a uniquely long period of time, he is far from alone in his wrongful incarceration. He is far from alone in having years of his life stolen due to either racist practices, profound incompetence, or flawed legal structures. He is far from the only American released to no one, his family and friends long gone or dead while he languished in jail.

Based on statistics compiled by the Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions, a conservative estimate of wrongful convictions in the United States is around 1% of the total prison population. This means that at least 20,000 American citizens are being held in prison with no legal basis, either because they are wholly innocent of the crime they were convicted of or because significant legal flaws hindered their right to a fair trial.

The statistics regarding wrongful convictions of Black Americans are even more staggering. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, innocent Black people are roughly seven times more likely to be falsely convicted of murder than their White counterparts. Police misconduct, a major factor in the erasure of Mr. Watts from Mr. Andrews’ murder trial, is 22% more likely to occur when the defendant is Black, instead of White.

Mr. Andrews’ story, while almost unbelievably unjust at first, is not rare. In 1984, Henry McCollum and his brother Leon Brown—both intellectually disabled—were sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a young girl. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime, and they only (falsely) confessed after significant police coercion.

In 2010, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission investigated the McCollum/Brown case, finding the DNA of Roscoe Artis—a convicted rapist and murderer—at the original crime scene. The Commission found that like Mr. Watts from the Andrews case, Mr. Artis was a suspect at first; however, the North Carolina police hid evidence linking Mr. Artis to the crime, instead opting to wrongfully sentence two young, Black, mentally disabled men to death.

In 2014, Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown were exonerated, after spending 31 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. ​​In fact, since 2012, eight men serving wrongful sentences for at least 30 years have been exonerated from several states' death rows: all of whom were Black, a fact which further reveals deep structural and institutional biases within the American justice system.

The issue of wrongful incarceration, and particularly the racial disparity that abounds within the phenomenon, is incredibly difficult to rectify. Thirty-seven states offer financial compensation to those exonerated, but the amounts are often meager—roughly $50,000 per year—and it can be difficult for the newly free to qualify. While financial restitution is imperative and necessary to both help the exonerated get back on their feet and assuage their suffering and loss, it is often not enough.

Many wrongfully incarcerated people, particularly Black men, face extreme mental and physical challenges upon their release. The red tape involved in obtaining a clean record, the residual trauma of life in prison, the grief of losing loved ones whilst incarcerated, and the terror of starting a new life as someone with few applicable skills, little knowledge of the world outside bars, and no safety net is often unbearable for those released after wrongful imprisonment.

These painful challenges are perhaps no clearer than in the case of Darryl Hunt, a Black man who was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a young white woman in 1984. After ceaselessly professing his innocence, he was exonerated in 2004. Similar to the cases of Isaiah Andrews, Henry McCollum, Leon Brown, and countless other young Black men falsely convicted and condemned to decades in prison, a separate prime suspect was identified in Mr. Hunt’s original trial—one who was never prosecuted and subsequently obscured from the trial documents.

The other suspect in Mr. Hunt’s 1984 trial, Willard Brown, confessed to the crime in 2003. However, this long-delayed admission did not ease the emotional trauma Mr. Hunt held from years in prison. After suffering from depression and self-neglect for years, even while tirelessly working for prison reform, Mr. Hunt tragically committed suicide in 2016.

In a bittersweet different ending, although his family died years before his exoneration, elderly Isaiah Andrews was not alone upon his release last month. Instead, Andrews was welcomed into freedom by his dear friends who now act as his supporters and caregivers: Lamont Clark, Ruel Sailor, and Charles Jackson—all three of whom are innocent Black men once wrongfully convicted themselves.


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