The Women Wrongfully Convicted by Drug War Prosecutors

    Any wrongful conviction is a human tragedy,” tweeted Sister Helen Prejan, a renowned author and anti-execution advocate, on October 2: International Wrongful Conviction Day.

    While an agreed-upon estimate of the prevalence of such tragedies is still being debated, any such conviction is unacceptable, and attention to this issue is spreading beyond just criminal justice reformers.

    Yet wrongfully convicted women, especially for drug offenses, are an often overlooked group within conversations and advocacy around this issue, since men continue to constitute the majority of these cases.

    Although dominated by murder and sexual violence cases, wrongful convictions include many drug offenses: 13 percent of the recorded total—or 325 cases in the United States since 1989.

    Here are the stories of four women of color who have been sentenced and then exonerated for drug-law violations they didn’t commit, according to information collected by the National Registry of Exonerations.

     

    Lydia Diane Jones’ “Inadequate Legal Defense”

    It was November 1997 in Birmingham, Alabama, and Jones (pictured above, right) stopped by her old home where her boyfriend was then living while she cared for her ailing father. Little did she know, her partner had begun selling cocaine and marijuana, and federal and local law enforcement officers were launching a raid on the house while she was picking up some old clothes.

    Initially arrested on a charge of marijuana possession and later charged with drug trafficking, Jones was convicted because her lawyer chose not to call on her boyfriend to testify that the drugs were in fact his—a choice that the National Registry considered to qualify as “inadequate legal defense.”

    Since she had three prior convictions—for a single instance of check forging for the purpose of paying for groceries over 17 years earlier—she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

    After being wrongfully incarcerated for around six years, Jones was released following an Alabama Court of Appeals decision.

     

    When a Louisiana DA “Framed” Informant Cheryl Beridon

    When Cheryl Beridon (pictured above, left), an informant for the Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, ended an affair with District Attorney Norval Rhodes, she faced retaliation that would place her unjustly behind bars for over 20 years.

    “Framed” for heroin distribution by Rhodes in 1977, Beridon, a 25-year-old Black woman, was sentenced to life. “We could do anything we wanted,” C. Chris Williams, a former investigator in Rhodes’ office, testified in a hearing for her. “She didn’t cooperate and she was embarrassing the DA, so we turned on her.”

    Beridon won parole in 2000, and eventually received a full pardon in 2003.

     

    “Attorney Laziness” Caused Maria Hernandez‘s 17-year Sentence

    In 2004, the trial judge’s and attorney’s failure to distinguish one Maria from another led to Maria Hernandez’s wrongful conviction for drug distribution, as well as gun trafficking. They did not question the specificity of evidence, a package of money mailed to a “Maria,” and instead simply assumed that it was intended for Hernandez—who had not even been living at the farm to which it was sent.

    Instead, it was destined for Maria Trinidad Pena Topete, who was having an affair with Hernandez’s husband and was one of the owners of the farm.

    In 2014, after being incarcerated for 10 years, Hernandez was released, with charges dismissed. A judge then vacated her conviction.

     

    A New York City Cop’s Lie About Tameeka Baker 

    In 2017, New York Police Department Officer Joseph Franco claimed that he saw Tameeka Baker, a 33-year-old Black woman, selling drugs in the lobby of Midtown Manhattan building. She received a four-year sentence.

    A year later, surveillance video surfaced showing that the alleged deal had never actually occurred.

    In November 2018, Baker’s charges were dismissed. In April 2019, Franco was indicted on 16 charges, including perjury and official misconduct.

    Image of Cheryl Berdion (left) and Lydia Diane Jones (right) via Jones Funeral Home and Equal Justice Initiative, respectively.

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