When a set of allegations is explosive enough, the police are under immense pressure to solve the crime. That can lead to corners being cut, such as targeting the most likely suspect to the exclusion of all others. Witness statements that don’t match the police’s theory may be ignored, as may evidence tending to show the suspect isn’t guilty. When the allegations are especially shocking, the risk of a false conviction seems to increase.
The allegations against Eric Prudholm, now 58, were horrifying. In June 1981, three men entered a Louisiana motel room occupied by a married couple and their three children. According to the police, the men forced the husband to lie on one bed with the children while two assailants raped the wife. Meanwhile, the third man searched the victims’ car for items to steal.
Although the hotel room had been dimly lit, the wife had been asleep until the first rape, and she had kept her eyes closed during most of the attack, her testimony was the only evidence presented against Prudholm. Moreover, she described the second rapist as a dark-skinned black man, while Prudholm, accused of being that second rapist, has light brown skin.
Prudholm presented seven alibi witnesses saying he was in California at the time of the attack. Nevertheless, a jury convicted him and sentenced him to life without parole plus 50 years.
When this case was being investigated, DNA evidence was in its infancy. In 2013, however, the Innocence Project New Orleans helped Prudholm get the evidence from the crime scene tested against his DNA. That test showed that Prudholm could not have been one of the men who raped the victim.
Yet despite the weakness of the evidence against him, the alibi witnesses and the newly available DNA evidence, the State of Louisiana fought Prudholm on an official exoneration. Instead, they allowed him to plead no contest and maintain his innocence in exchange for immediate release. He has been resentenced to time served, but he still has aggravated rape and robbery convictions on his record and must register as a sex offender for life.
Prudholm’s daughter, now 37, was born mere months after his arrest and detainment in 1981. He now has a grandchild, as well.
It’s easy to get so angry at some allegations that we put aside our belief that people are innocent until proven guilty. The truth is that many people accused of serious crimes are innocent, or at least not guilty of as much as the prosecution alleges. To avoid unjust convictions and the incarceration of innocent people, we must demand that the prosecution prove every case beyond a reasonable doubt.