Book Chronicles 'Tested' Wrongly Convicted Felons America's system of criminal justice is based on the presumption of innocence. But what happens when innocent people are wrongly convicted? A new book, titled "Tested: How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope" answers these questions.

Book Chronicles 'Tested' Wrongly Convicted Felons

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/131515178/131513691" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ALLISON KEYES, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we honor the late Margaret Burroughs, a woman who made it her mission to personally bring the story of African-American history to those in her neighborhood, her city and her nation.

But, first, America's system of criminal justice is based on the presumption of innocence. It's the burden of police and prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty of a crime. But what happens when that system goes wrong and innocent people find themselves behind bars. How do the wrongly convicted maintain the faith and inner strength required to endure prison, much less, fight for their release.

A new book explores those questions. It's called "Tested: How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope." And we're joined now, by one of its authors, former prosecutor and current Episcopal deacon, Dorothy Budd. Also with us are two of the men profiled in the book, Billy Smith, who spent more than 19 years in prison for a sexual assault that DNA evidence finally proved he didn't commit and Christopher Scott, who was wrongly convicted of capital murder and served 12 years in prison before being exonerated and freed in 2009.

All three joined us from Dallas, Texas. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BILLY SMITH: My pleasure, and thank you for having me here.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER SCOTT: Thank you for having us.

Ms. DOROTHY BUDD (Co-Author, "Tested: How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope"): Thank you so much. It's our pleasure to be here today.

KEYES: Dorothy let me start with you, how did you get involved in this and how did you meet the men involved?

Ms. BUDD: Well, there were really two things that led to it. First of all, I was a prosecutor in the Dallas County district attorneys office working in their sex crime division, and those were the years that many of these cases originated. So as time went by, after I quit working for the district attorneys office, still, I would always notice in the paper when someone was being exonerated and looked to see if it was one of my cases.

KEYES: Right.

Ms. BUDD: And probably all I ever would've done was look at it in the paper and think about it, except that my church, the Church of the Incarnation, was having a Bible study with a nearby community. And one day, the question was, where have you seen God's spirit at work in your lifetime? And an older African-American woman said, well, for me it was when the new DA got elected in Dallas. And I had no idea where that was going to go and whether it was going to be something political.

But when I asked her, she said, I'm not talking about politics, I'm talking about the fact that there were - this group of innocent men, that had been in prison for so long and no one had been hearing their cries. And suddenly both the technology came about to prove their innocence and there was someone in office who was willing to listen to their cries. So that's how this book came to be and how I went and asked the district attorney if I could meet these amazing men.

KEYES: Billy, I know this is going to be hard for you, but I'd like you to take us back to the day you were arrested and tell us what happened.

Mr. SMITH: That was, I think, one of the most beautiful mornings I'd ever seen in my life. The sun was shining bright. It was kind of cool that morning. And I didn't know that that'd be the last morning that I would ever see for 19 years.

August 7th, 1986 I was at my sister's apartment. I spent the night there 'cause I was living with her. And 7 o'clock in the morning there was a knock on the door and it was the Dallas Police Department. And they asked me to come out on the back and they said there was a woman that said that she had been raped about 2:30 to 3:00 this morning. And so I said, well, I don't know anything about that. I was in here asleep. And so he told me, he said, well, she has a complaint against you and then he called downtown to a sergeant and when they found out that I had been arrested before, and I was on parole, then they told them to bring me downtown for further questioning.

And so I went down and I agreed to take a polygraph test, I agreed to take a blood test and everything, of course, they denied me. You know, I just never thought I would get convicted because I never hadn't did anything. So from 35 years old, when I was arrested in 1986, and I was 54 years old when I got exonerated and released.

KEYES: Wow. That's a huge chunk of your life. I want to ask Christopher, and you were wrongfully arrested and convicted of murder and it wasn't even based on physical evidence, right? I mean, was there, you spent 12 years in prison, did you ever think earlier, well, there's no evidence against me, so surely they're going to find out that I'm not supposed to be here?

Mr. SCOTT: Well, yeah, I thought that at first. But the deck was stacked against me, not a racist person or anything, but my judge was white, my whole jury panel was white, my lawyer was white. You know, I didn't just feel like I didn't have a chance to win it all because we had to pick three different jury panels before we could pick one that would convict me of a crime of capital murder that carried life or death. And a lot of people couldn't say they could do that, because they didnt have no type of evidence at all to prosecute me, even to take it to trial.

KEYES: Billy, the thing that struck me about reading your story was that you said there was a point that you actually wondered if you had committed the crime. How does your mind get to that place?

Mr. SMITH: Growing up, I abused alcohol. I have abused drugs and that was the moments when you be so high you pass out and you wake up the next day, you just didn't remember anything.

KEYES: Right.

Mr. SMITH: And it was like, I was sitting in my cell and I was thinking, now did I pass out and rape this woman and I just dont remember?

KEYES: Wow. And Christopher, I know you had kind of a crisis of faith involving the woman that you loved, Brandy. And I have to say the women that read your story were all like aw. Talk to us a little bit about how she sustained you, at least in the early part of your incarceration.

Mr. SMITH: She was like my rock when I first went to prison because everything that I needed her to do for me she did. If it was taking care of my kids or going trying to talk to a lawyer, or just giving me the love and support and trying to keep my confidence and faith that everything was going to be a better day.

KEYES: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. We're talking about the book, Tested: How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope. With us are two of the men profiled in the book Christopher Scott and Billy Smith, along with co-author Dorothy Budd.

I want to ask both of you and Christopher first, how have you gentlemen avoided being angry? I mean I can't imagine how I dont hear rage in your voices.

Mr. SCOTT: You know, you can't waste your time on being angry because that will destroy your life. Because being angry if something that you can't control, and you want to be in control of your life now because for so long you had other people controlling their every move. So now, you know, we just, just try to live right. And now, the positive thing about it was that I was able to come home, still was kind of young - I'm 40 but still kind of young, and I was able to send both of my kids to school now. You know both of them go to the college that got me out of prison, which is the University of Texas.

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCOTT: You know, from the negative thing, we just try to make everything else about our life very positive.

KEYES: Billy, let me ask you the same question.

Mr. SMITH: My first 10 years in prison on this wrongful conviction was the hardest for me because I didn't have any connection with outside people. I only had one sister that stayed in touch with me. And having my freedom taken away from me, like it did, I had to remain hopeful that one day I would get out and something would happen. But if I had held onto the anger and the rage that was inside of me, I never would've survived.

KEYES: Dorothy, you're a former prosecutor. Talk to us a little bit about what made it so easy for wrongful convictions to happen.

Rev. BUDD: Well, I think what happens is, I doubt that any police officer wakes up in the morning and says what I want to do today is if there is a crime in my neighborhood in my beat I'm going to go pick the wrong man. Because it goes without saying that if you picked the wrong man, that means the actual criminal is still out there. That said, if within our system and I dont think its just a problem in Dallas. I think there's cases from all over the country. It's the highest standard of identifying suspects, bringing them in, having eyewitness lineups, you know, making sure that nothing is tainted in how you point out to witness, you know, is this the person that did it? In Chris Scott's case, you know, the widow who's just watched her husband be shot is walked by and shown Chris Scott in handcuffs, and essentially asked, that the man that shot your husband, isn't it? Well, we know that that's not the best way to do a lineup and find a suspect.

KEYES: Right.

Rev. BUDD: So what happens is, you know, one mistake is made and then the system begins to roll, and before you know what an innocent man is in prison.

KEYES: I wonder, as a spiritual leader yourself, what have you learned about faith from this whole experience in how these men were able to free themselves of the anger they had and move on with their lives?

Rev. BUDD: I think what I learned that was so interesting to me, and what makes this book transcend just being a book about prison or even a book about wrongful conviction, is that these men are examples that each one of us can use any time in our life when we feel like we've gotten to a dead end or were stuck. These men were literally physically stuck in five by nine cells with nowhere to turn and yet, they found a way to hold on and to find resources within themselves, even when they felt like they had no options. And I think thats inspirational for anybody at any point in their lives.

KEYES: Christopher, you've been out just over a year, right.

Mr. SCOTT: Yes, thats correct.

KEYES: Are you and Brandy still together? Are you feeling less institutionalized?

Mr. SCOTT: Yes, I feel less institutionalized now. You know, when I first got out it was kind of hard because I was scared to like drive cars. And when I got locked up things were so different. We had VCR tapes. Now we have DVDs and the cell phones and credit cards to go get you gas and whatever. It was kind of a hard transition to get through. But the course of me and Brandy, we're still friends, and you never know about, you know, what the future holds. You know, we still remain friends at this time and the love is still there. It's just about putting it back together again.

KEYES: Billy, how are doing these days. How long have you been free?

Mr. SMITH: I've been out four years now. I met a beautiful young lady and we got married September 19th...

KEYES: Congratulations.

Mr. SMITH: ...09 and we just celebrated our first wedding anniversary, September 19th this year. We're having a good time. I'm just going on with my life. I'm not angry. Thank God for that because I could never have a successful marriage if I was a man running around with a lot of anger and hating because, you know, anger hurts. It really hurts you. It takes away from you and it's like, you know, I have something to finally start being excited about, being married and having, you know, even though they are my stepchildren, but they treat me as though on their natural father. And, you know, just being married and having a wife, having someone there by my side that I know was there with me every day, somebody I can I can go home to, you know, I can have a life with, because I didn't I didn't have a life when I was in prison because all that was taken away.

You just can't afford to hold on to hating and, you know, and rage because would've just destroyed me and that's the reason I was in there. But now I'm beginning to where, you know, being married and being happy is helping me to come around because that's important that we have somebody in our lives that we can count on to be there. Because in the beginning of this thing, nobody was there for us that's how - that's what hurts the most and we have to be there for so long. But today I could actually say I'm a happy man because, you know, I got somebody that's in my corner. You know, and so things are working out for me. I thank God for Dorothy and, you know, getting us together because it help us to further continue to have a bond. You know, there's a group of us exonerees(ph) in Dallas now, we stick together. We stay together. We're in contact at least once or twice a week, and we're going to talk to each other because, you know, we been there. We done that. And we are our best friend.

KEYES: Christopher Scott and Billy Smith are both profiled in the book "Tested: How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held Onto Hope." And Rev. Dorothy Budd is a co-author of that book. They all joined us from Dallas, Texas.

Thank you so much.

Mr. SCOTT: Thank you so much for having me.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you so much.

Rev. BUDD: Thank you so much for having us on the show today.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.