120 Years: A Case Study in Wrongful Incarceration
KATHRYN ZHENG (editor-in-chief) & CYNTHIA ZHOU (creative director) | AGORA X The Yale Politic
Scott Lewis’s face is incredulous as he recounts his astonishing tale of wrongful imprisonment. “The judge had the nerve to say that I should feel fortunate that my sentence was reduced to a hundred and twenty years [from the original sentence of 240 years],” he laughs, almost involuntarily.
The title of the recent film 120 Years (a detailed narrative of Lewis’s story), created by Yale undergraduate students Keera Annamaneni, Lukas Cox, and Matt Nadel, takes its name from this sentence levied upon Lewis for a double homicide he did not commit. Though Lewis’s story is perhaps unique—it involves a cop who was apparently so well-known for being “dirty” that he had been investigated by the FBI and Lewis’s tremendous achievement in managing to do much of his own legal work—many of its implications, unfortunately, are not. While the focus of 120 Years is undeniably centered upon Lewis himself, the film takes care to communicate the message that Lewis’s case is, as stated by one interviewee, above all “a poster child for how the [American incarceration and justice] system is completely broken.”
120 Years begins with Lewis recounting the events of April 15, 1991, the day which marked the beginning of the nineteen lost years of his life. On that spring day, he was stopped by a police officer at a traffic light for a minor traffic violation and informed that there was a warrant out for his arrest for his apparent involvement in a double homicide. Lewis was astonished at this turn of events: he knew that he had never murdered anyone and described himself as being “scared to death” when he was informed of the crime he had ostensibly committed.
Lewis had, in actuality, been framed for the murders by an infamously corrupt detective involved in New Haven’s drug trade, Vincent Raucci, who resented the fact that Lewis, a former drug dealer who had worked as such to support his family, had left the illicit trade after witnessing first-hand how drugs were ruining his cousin’s life. In spite of Lewis having a credible alibi, he, along with Stefon Morant, was nonetheless arrested and convicted guilty of the murders. Yet Lewis took the remarkable step of fighting back. He filed legal injunctions, reduced his bonds, and never lost faith in his innocence and his ability to regain his freedom: he signed every letter he wrote with the phrase “Scott Lewis, an innocent man.” Eventually, Lewis did manage to win his freedom, and today, he represents other formerly-incarcerated citizens in the real estate market.
Lewis’s story, however, is far from a thoroughly uplifting one. “Watching Scott and his family restart their relationships after losing twenty years and realizing that their relationships are still suffering from his incarceration affected me profoundly,” said film producer Annamaneni. Indeed, Lewis’s story shows that life after incarceration, even wrongful incarceration, is often a struggle. Lewis’s son, Scott Lewis Jr., has stated that he only has five to ten concrete memories of his father pre-incarceration, and it is extremely difficult today to form a stable emotional relationship with him.
Tragically, Lewis’s story also isn’t the norm. “The fact that Scott won is nothing short of a miracle,” stated Cox. “His co-defendant Stefon Morant still hasn’t been exonerated—he is entirely innocent, was also framed, and is still registered as a felon. Scott made the impossible happen, but hundreds in his shoes are not able to get justice in the same way.” Cox’s fellow filmmaker, Nadel, concurred with this judgement. “Scott’s story is unique; his unparalleled drive, charisma, and intelligence ultimately caused him to be released, exonerated, and compensated. Most wrongfully convicted individuals in the United States—the majority of whom are people of color living in poverty—cannot boast a fate as bright.”
Thousands of Americans are wrongfully incarcerated every year; although no concrete numbers have been released, as many who are wrongfully incarcerated are never exonerated, a 2014 study found that 4.1% of inmates on death row alone are actually innocent. Experts interviewed in 120 Years estimate that around 12.6% of the general U.S. prison population is actually wrongfully incarcerated—a staggering 230,000 inmates. “As of 2016, there are 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations. That’s an underestimate, as many potential exonerees were executed before DNA evidence or other information could have been used to prove their innocence,” explained Annamaneni. Even those who do eventually manage to prove their innocence will never truly be fairly compensated for their time in prison. “The average person who has been exonerated through DNA testing spends over 14 years incarcerated—14 years without work experience, vocational training, or salaries.”
120 Years makes it painfully clear, however, that wrongful incarceration is not simply the result of unfortunate accidents. Instead, it’s simply a consequence of the flaws present in the American criminal justice system. As shown in Lewis’s case, police and prosecutorial misconduct often play major roles in cases of wrongful incarceration. A 2010 study conducted by U.S. Today found that between the years 1997 and 2010, 201 criminal cases prosecuted by officials of the U.S. Justice Department alone—purportedy the most credible law enforcement officials in the entire nation—involved ethical or legal misconduct.
120 Years is also a tale of racial injustice. At one point in the film, one interviewee states that while he was attempting to reconcile the evidence involved in Lewis’s case—which seemed to point not towards, but away from Lewis—Raucci, frustrated with his efforts, asked him, “Why do you care so much [about Lewis]? He’s just another black guy.” Lewis’s case could have easily been lost between the cracks of the U.S. criminal justice system, which bears a preponderance of racial inequities, if not for his own tenacity. “Even though African-Americans constitute 13 percent of the American population, 47 percent of the 1,900 people who have been exonerated to date are African-American. In murder cases like Scott’s, innocent black people are seven times more likely to be convicted compared to innocent white people,” stated Annamaneni. Such racial inequities are also often coupled with prosecutorial and police misconduct, leading to horrifically unjust consequences. Indeed, according to a 2017 report by the National Registry of Exonerations, witness tampering occurs in nearly twice as many cases involving black defendants than in cases involving white defendants.
Yet the filmmakers of 120 Years remain hopeful that change is in the future’s cards. “We hope that 120 Years brings to light some of the challenges of reentering society after incarceration and pushes people—legislators, attorneys, advocates, and others—to reconsider existing legislation and to help ease the transition back to society for all incarcerated individuals,” stated Annamaneni. “The warm reception that the film has already received has given me hope that Scott’s story and its emphasis on the plight of wrongful conviction can make a real difference in our understanding of how the criminal justice system operates.”