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This is a pop quiz; your grade doesn’t count. The questions are not particularly a test of knowledge. Instead my intent is to raise compelling prison-reform and criminal-justice issues.

The subject matter for this blog comes from Matthew Shaer’s article “Exoneration,” which appears in the January/February 2017 edition of Smithsonian magazine (pages 80– 87). Shaer highlights the exoneration of Ricky Jackson after he had been incarcerated for a death-penalty crime he did not commit.

I’ve chosen the multistate format to raise substantive issues; I do not intend to minimize the events of Mr. Jackson’s experience. As a former teacher and inmate, I like this approach for starting a conversation about Mr. Jackson’s reported horrific and nightmarish journey in the Ohio judicial system. His story underscores weaknesses in today’s penal and criminal justice systems. Consider this eerie statistic from the Ohio Innocence Project: it and other Innocence Projects across the country have freed more than 250 wrongfully convicted inmates to date.


The Quiz

You do not need to read the Smithsonian article to do this exercise. I want to educate and lay a foundation for commentary by me and by my readers. You can learn more about Ricky Jackson’s case by clicking here before or after taking the test.



1. Ricky Jackson, a former Ohio prisoner, served the longest term of an exonerated defendant in American history for a murder he did not commit. How many years did he spend in prison before prosecutors dismissed the charges against him in 2014?

  1. 39
  2. 27
  3. 19
  4. 5

2. Ricky Jackson’s case best illustrates

  1. That the criminal justice system is fraught with human error
  2. That innocent people are not convicted of crimes
  3. That citizens who are wrongfully convicted should be compensated for lost time
  4. How the criminal justice system can wrong the innocent

3. How would you expect Ricky Jackson to express his sensation of freedom?

  1. “These are days [of freedom] you wish for in prison.”
  2. “Sometimes I just have this sense like I’m running out of time.”
  3. “If I didn’t have to sleep, I wouldn’t.”
  4. All the above

4. What key factor(s) led to Ricky Jackson’s exoneration?

  1. Luck and hope
  2. In 2014, the prosecutor’s witness against Jackson, who had been twelve years old at the time of the murder, proclaimed the police coerced him into testifying against Jackson (and two codefendants)
  3. The Ohio Innocence Project staff and attorneys’ work on behalf of Jackson
  4. Both b and c


Answers and Discussion

Question No. 1

The correct answer is (a). Ricky Jackson spent thirty-nine years in prison.

“Jackson spent 39 years in an Ohio prison for a crime he didn’t commit—the longest prison term for an exonerated defendant in American history” (p. 83).

It’s difficult to get one’s brain around this fact. How would such an experience impact me or you—anyone? What would you do to keep your sanity?


Question No. 2

The correct answer to what Jackson’s case best illustrates is contingent on societal values, your level of trust in the penal system, and a sense of fairness.

Answer (a): “The criminal justice system is fraught with human error” is a plausible response but actually says nothing. The response ignores the systemic problems that plague the American criminal-justice system and reinforces the notion that our systems are certainly penal in nature and not rehabilitative.

Answer (b): “Innocent people are not convicted of crimes” makes no sense and is contrary to cases such as Ricky Jackson’s.

Answer (c): “Citizens who are wrongfully convicted should be compensated for lost time.” This is the law in twenty-six states and the District of Columbia and in federal false-conviction cases, but it does not represent what Jackson’s case best illustrates. What’s up with the other twenty-four states? Where is equal protection for all men and woman in the ultramarginalized exoneration population?

Answer (d): “The criminal justice system can wrong the innocent” is the best answer.

Question No. 3 is best answered by (d), all of the above.

Question No. 4 is best answered by (d), both (b) and (c). Answer (a), “Luck and hope,” is ludicrous.


You can watch an NBC News video of Ricky’s release from prison and experience his philosophical views on life after spending decades behind prison walls. Amazing!

How did you do? Let me know how this test sensitized you to prison and criminal-justice reform issues.

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