Lisa Roberts was always high-energy and athletic. Growing up in Boston and Palatka, Florida, she played basketball and volleyball and ran track. She then joined the Army, where she trained as a mechanic, hooped and played flag football and softball. She weighed just 123 pounds, but she later got into powerlifting.
“I was an itty-bitty thing,” she says now, “but I was strong.”
That was long ago, before Roberts left the service, fell into what authorities called a volatile love triangle and ended up pleading guilty to a murder she did not commit. She was locked up for 12 years before new analysis of DNA evidence raised doubts about whether she had actually strangled her girlfriend, and a federal judge found that her lawyer had offered ineffective counsel. She was released from an Oregon prison in 2014.
The story of Roberts’ imprisonment and the work she has done to rebuild her life is featured in a new documentary series, Evidence of Innocence, premiering June 4 on TV One. The show, hosted by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, casts a revealing light on one of the grossest injustices regularly produced by the nation’s flawed criminal justice system: the incarceration of the innocent.
“I call it ‘killing softly’ when you have these prosecutors who knowingly, spitefully, illegally, immorally send poor, majority black and brown people to prison for crimes they know, or should have known, they did not commit,” Crump said.
The innocent are sent to jail in alarming numbers. In the past three decades, 2,215 prisoners have been exonerated after going to prison, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University law schools and the University of California, Irvine. Crump suspects that figure captures only a fraction of the problem.
On average, those proved to have been wrongfully convicted served nearly nine years before being freed. Forty-six percent of prisoners who were later exonerated were black, the registry said, although African-Americans make up just 12 percent of the nation’s population and 37 percent of the prison population.
In recent years, Crump has become one of the nation’s best-known civil rights attorneys, as he has worked on cases that helped ignite the Black Lives Matter movement and brought new scrutiny of the criminal justice system. His clients have included the families of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old killed by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida; Michael Brown, the 18-year-old killed in a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed by police in Cleveland while holding a toy gun; and Corey Jones, the cousin of former NFL star Anquan Boldin who was killed by a plainclothes officer while he was waiting for a tow truck to pick up his disabled car in South Florida.
“I always knew that the criminal justice system was terribly unfair and discriminatory, but until you get into the trenches and see how inherently racist and discriminatory the system is, you can’t even fathom it,” Crump said.
When it comes to incarcerating the innocent, the bias is not always obvious. It often lurks in law enforcement’s assumptions about the lifestyles of their targets or the neighborhoods they live in, the shortcuts authorities take to jail those they believe are guilty, or the inadequacy of legal representation for the poor.
In Roberts’ case, police gathered what from some angles appeared to be compelling evidence against her. She was arrested on Aug. 16, 2002, nearly three months after the naked body of her lover, 25-year-old Jerri Williams, was found dumped in a Portland park.
Prosecutors said Williams, who had a history of drug use and prostitution, was the victim of a love triangle involving Roberts and another woman with whom Roberts had lived for years. They also pointed to witnesses who said that Roberts had a history of violence and had seen her punch, choke and threaten people.
As the case approached trial in 2004, prosecutors told the defense that an analysis of cellphone tower records placed Roberts near the park where Williams’ body was found on the morning of the murder. Her lawyer had hired an expert to do a separate cellphone tower analysis, but it was never completed.
While Roberts had maintained her innocence and said she had never been arrested before, the prosecution’s cell tower analysis was enough to make her accept a plea bargain. If she had gone to trial, she could have received a life sentence. Instead, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to a 15-year term.
“When you get arrested, they say you are innocent until proven guilty,” Roberts said. “Well, I was guilty trying to prove myself innocent. And there was no daggone way. So I took the plea bargain because I couldn’t see myself doing life.”
Two years after her guilty plea, she began a series of appeals. By 2008, her new lawyers had received DNA laboratory reports that cast doubt on Roberts’ guilt but weren’t conclusive. Later DNA testing on semen found in Williams’ body turned up two male profiles, including one of a man who was known to have badgered Williams to work for him as a prostitute. Then, crucially, a re-examination of the cellphone records concluded that the tower data was incapable of pinpointing Roberts’ location.
It wasn’t until 2014, after Roberts had served the lion’s share of her sentence, that a federal judge vacated her guilty plea. She was released from prison on May 28, 2014, and prosecutors dropped charges against her five days later.
“It didn’t feel like victory, but at least I have my freedom and my life,” said Roberts, who is now 53 and works at a commercial laundry in Portland. She relaxes by hiking, running and bike riding. “At least I don’t have any metal doors slamming behind me.”
Roberts let out a deep belly laugh when asked whether she received compensation from the state for her wrongful incarceration. “Excuse my language, but hell, no,” she said.