During the years I assessed prisoners’ innocence claims for the Judicial Process Commission in Rochester, I became involved in several cases in which I concluded people convicted of murder were actually innocent, including the case of Charles.

Three men robbed a dry cleaning establishment in Harlem. During the robbery, one of the perpetrators fatally shot the owner. Charles was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 20 years to life imprisonment.

The co-owner of the cleaning establishment claimed he recognized Charles as being one of the perpetrators. However, this witness failed to make a pre-trial identification of Charles in the presence of three detectives. There was no other evidence connecting Charles to the crime. An earlier witness described the perpetrator said to be Charles as being about 6 feet, 2 inches tall and very dark skinned. Charles has a lighter complexion and was 5 feet, 9 inches tall when he was arrested.

The person said to be Charles was the only one of the three robbers whose face was visible and unmasked. Charles often hung out at the cleaning establishment. He wrote me that “everyone there was quite familiar with my face. I would have been a fool to stick this place up without obscuring my face.”

Charles wasn’t accused of being the killer. He was convicted of being an accomplice. Prior to trial, the establishment’s co-owner told a defense investigator that the person said to be Charles prevented the man who killed the store owner from also killing the co-owner. It occurred to me that if Charles was really guilty, he should offer the parole board as a mitigating factor that he saved the co-owner’s life and did not cause the death of the store owner. But Charles told me he wouldn’t do so because “I am completely innocent.”

Charles’ court-appointed attorney failed to call several witnesses who could have testified that Charles was at home during the time of the crime. The common-law wife of the victim, who was at the scene when the murder occurred, knew Charles and she could have testified that Charles was wrongly identified. The defense attorney did not call her to testify. He persuaded Charles to waive his right to testify, telling Charles that his prior nonviolent offenses would then be brought to the fore and could prejudice the jury against him. So the attorney raised no defense whatsoever.

While he was in prison, Charles tried unsuccessfully to persuade the district attorney to give him a police-administered lie detector test. Finally, Charles’ family hired a former New York City police detective and polygraphist to administer a polygraph examination. Charles was asked if he was involved in the robbery of the store and if he ever did a stick-up with a shotgun at any other time. Charles replied no to these questions.

The polygraphist concluded, “No deception was indicated in this examiner’s recorded responses to the relevant questions and it is the polygraphist’s opinion that examinee answered them truthfully.”

Both Charles and I contacted an agency devoted to helping innocent people in prison. We received no replies. Charles was never exonerated, but at least he was paroled after serving his minimum sentence even though he didn’t meet the parole board’s expectation that prisoners express remorse for the crimes they were imprisoned for.

Prior to his parole hearing Charles wrote me, “I have to prove my innocence. I swear I will go to my grave trying. Proving my innocence means more to me than gaining my freedom. At times I get frustrated and feel like throwing in the towel and accepting defeat. But to do that would be to accept the gross injustice that has been meted out to me, and this I cannot ever accept.”

While a majority of innocence claims I reviewed were not meritorious, I reviewed enough meritorious claims to conclude that miscarriages of justice occur with alarming frequency.

As Scott Christiansen concluded in his book “Innocent: Inside Wrongful Conviction Cases,” wrongful convictions “represent tragic and costly flaws in our system of justice, our society. Often these actions go largely undetected or unnoticed, except by the actual criminals and their hidden victims — the wrongly convicted. But they are not invisible, insignificant or nonexistent. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ And punishment of the innocent makes a mockery of the law.”

My Oct. 4 Messenger article, “The accused are not always guilty,” described how innocent people have been wrongly convicted of sexual crimes. In a future article, I will discuss why I believe New York needs to follow the example of North Carolina, which has a state-supported Innocence Inquiry Commission to address the problem of wrongful convictions.

Joel Freedman, of Canandaigua, is a frequent Messenger Post contributor.