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As the year 1984 unfolded, life seemed good to John Stoll. He owned a construction company, made a comfortable living, and loved his 5-year-old son, Jed. Then, without warning, police entered Stoll’s home just before midnight, arrested him for child molestation, and placed him in the Bakersfield, Calif., jail. Prosecutors claimed that Stoll’s son and five of his son’s friends had accused him of sodomy and other illegal sexual acts. A jury convicted Stoll because a few children — coached by social workers, police officers, and prosecutors — accused him and other Bakersfield-area adults of inappropriate conduct. No physical evidence. No prior history of such conduct. No credible testimony. But unreason reigned. Stoll served 19 years of a 40-year sentence before the authorities responsible for railroading him agreed that he had been victimized during a bout of mass hysteria. Books about wrongful convictions abound. That’s because wrongful convictions are so frequent that they’ve spawned an entire genre. Although some of the books are poorly researched and written, most tell compelling narratives. After all, wrongful-conviction cases are inherently dramatic. That said, the books sometimes are difficult to tell apart just a few months after publication. The story lines are familiar, and nothing ever seems to change for the better: Another mistaken eyewitness believed by authorities, another rush to judgment by police detectives, another coerced confession from a scared or mentally incompetent suspect, another forensic examiner in a police crime laboratory reaching a wrong conclusion, another lying jailhouse snitch, another example of prosecutorial misconduct inside or outside the courtroom, another poorly trained or lazy or uncaring defense attorney, another biased judge, another jury panel failing to hear evidence that might point to exoneration, another appellate court failing to carry out its job conscientiously. Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated is different. Like almost everything involving San Francisco author Dave Eggers, it is unique and bold. Eggers achieved fame a decade ago with his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Instead of spending his earnings on mansions and fast cars, Eggers has decided to advance some worthy causes. One of them is the Voice of Witness book series. Relying on oral history, Voice of Witness books aim to expose human rights crises around the globe. Co-founder and co-editor Lola Vollen is a doctor working with survivors of human rights abuses. She and Eggers ask University of California journalism students to gather the oral histories. Surviving Justice is the first book in the series. The book opens with a brief essay by Scott Turow, the Chicago lawyer-author who has written as effectively as anyone about the flaws infecting the criminal justice system, flaws that result in wrongful convictions while the actual perpetrators remain at large to rob, rape, or murder again. Next come 11 oral histories of specific wrongful convictions. A few of those cases have been well chronicled before, especially the stories of Beverly Monroe in Richmond, Va., and Stoll in Bakersfield. The book includes a section of recommended reforms, some of which are being tried in a few states. Why would any police officer who cares about catching the guilty ones object to all interrogations being videotaped? Why would any prosecutor sworn to uphold justice and who has nothing to hide object to an open-file policy when defense lawyers come calling? Why would judges ban legitimate expert testimony about the questionable nature of eyewitness identifications? Although some innocent inmates win release, as a journalist who has studied hundreds of miscarriages of justice, I find it difficult to feel uplifted by this book. Still, Vollen and Eggers wisely include brief profiles of heroes who labor incessantly to deal with the flood of alleged wrongful convictions. For instance, there’s James McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries in Princeton, N.J. Since discovering many wrongful convictions while completing a jailhouse ministry during seminary training, McCloskey has devoted 25 years to investigating compelling claims of innocence. With a small staff and almost no money, Centurion Ministries has played a significant role in the release of 36 inmates on innocence grounds. Any lawyer who has tried to overcome the obstacles in even one such case understands the mind-boggling difficulties erected by Congress, state legislatures, trial judges, and appellate courts. When I write about those difficulties, some of my readers wonder if I’m making it up. Could it be true that there are procedural bars to the introduction of post-conviction evidence suggesting actual innocence? Yes, it is true. At the same time, maybe the superb oral histories in Surviving Justice will persuade additional lawyers and other insiders to repair the system’s flaws, so that outsiders such as McCloskey are no longer needed.
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative journalist in Columbia, Mo.

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