Does an Innocent Man Have the Right to Be Exonerated?

In the 1980s, Larry Youngblood was wrongfully imprisoned for raping a 10-year-old boy. The way the Supreme Court handled his case had lasting consequences.

In the early morning hours of June 16, 2004, a 31-year-old man named David Leon was killed by a train just west of Estavan Park in Tucson. The Arizona Daily Star ran a brief item on the accident but never mentioned Leon’s background; the press seemed unaware that he had been in the middle of Tucson’s biggest legal scandal for the past two decades.

There was a good reason the media hadn’t recognized Leon’s name: Over the years, he’d been referred to vaguely as “the victim” or under the pseudonym “Paul”; the U.S. Supreme Court had called him “David L.” But concealing his identity hadn’t prevented the young man from suffering untold damage. Weeks after the train accident, the autopsy revealed that he had been drunk at the time of his death, a fact that surely surprised no one who knew him. And so the story ended almost exactly where it began: within a stone’s throw of Interstate 10.

By the time David Leon was in the fifth grade, he was already struggling with emotional problems. At the age of 4, he had been referred for therapy because he was acting out in his preschool and was unable to get along with the other children; a counselor later characterized him as hyperactive. But in at least one way he was like just about every other 10-year-old boy: He preferred carnivals to church. Such was the choice he faced when he accompanied his mother to the Southgate Shopping Center on the night of October 29, 1983. His mother’s church, called The Door, was hosting a music concert that night, but there was a carnival in the parking lot, and naturally David wanted to go. Towards the end of the service, when everyone stood to pray, she noticed that he had slipped out. She circled the carnival grounds a number of times, but he was nowhere to be found.

The pastor’s wife called David’s mother later that night. The boy had come back, shaken up, with his clothes torn and inside-out. He had been abducted, raped, and dropped back at the church. His mother took him to Kino Community Hospital and the facts of the crime began to emerge. A black man with a bad eye had asked David if he’d give him a hand transporting a tent in his car—there was $5 in it for him if he would help. David initially hesitated—he wasn’t supposed to get into cars with strangers—but the man was persistent, and eventually he got the boy to follow along behind his car. One thing led to another, and eventually David was thrown into the man’s car, driven out to the desert, and raped twice. Just before he was returned to the church, the man told him that he had a go-cart at home and maybe he could see David again.

The police did what police do in these situations. First one officer talked to David, then another. A composite artist worked with him to get an accurate portrait of the perpetrator. They photographed him to document any injuries and collected his clothing. Finally, the doctor at the hospital brought out a rape kit—using swabs, he collected samples from the boy’s mouth and rectum, as well as samples of the boy’s blood, saliva, and hair. All that was left was to catch the black man with the bad eye.

It is a common complaint that media coverage of crime spotlights the perpetrator while ignoring the victim. Certainly this was true in the Leon case, or at least partly true. As it turned out, there were two victims, and the second one, Larry Youngblood, received a great deal of unwanted attention. This is because for 17 years he was seen as the perpetrator.

Nine days after the crime, a detective in the Tucson Police Department assembled a collection of photographs, six in all, of black men—each of them had an eye randomly blotted out. When detectives make a photo lineup—instead of having the eyewitness look through books of mugshots—it means they already have a suspect in mind, what the police call a “prime.” In this case, the prime was Larry Youngblood. He’d been convicted of a robbery 10 years earlier and had some subsequent minor brushes with the police—and he was a black man living in Tucson with one bad eye. As the detective put it in law-enforcement speak, “Officers had suspicions that the subject in this case may have been Mr. Youngblood.”

David was in his fifth grade classroom at the Irene Erickson Elementary School when Detective Joyce Lingel came to see him with the photo spread. David held the lineup very close to his face, prompting Detective Lingel to ask if he was having trouble seeing. He said that he had left his glasses in the classroom, and she sent him back to get them. When he returned, he again looked carefully at the photos and announced with certainty that Number Three was the guy. Larry Youngblood.

That was all they needed. Youngblood was arrested a month later, and not long after that he made arrangements to use his home as equity for bail. But he was still in custody five days before Christmas, when his preliminary hearing was scheduled. David came to court that morning with a member of the Victim Witness Program, and Detective Lingel joined him on a bench outside the courtroom while they waited for the case to begin. Larry Youngblood emerged from an elevator, escorted by a deputy sheriff, wearing prison issue and with his hands cuffed behind him. It was then that David looked him over, turned to the detective, and asked, “Is that him?”

The photo lineup David Leon used to identify Larry Youngblood (top right) as the perpetrator (Still from a PBS documentary)

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification is responsible for 72 percent of the convictions ultimately overturned through DNA evidence. It’s easy to understand why—just think of the last time you saw an old friend reading a book in the airport, tapped him on the shoulder, and then stumbled over the apology when it turned out not to be him. And that was an old friend, not a complete stranger. But not every identification is mistaken, and as the prosecutor told the jury, David had “ample time to observe the person who did it.” What she didn’t say, and maybe didn’t have to say, was that Youngblood was a black man with a bad eye living in Tucson. How many could there be?

From the beginning, though, David’s description wasn’t a perfect match for the suspect: He’d told his mother that the car he’d been kidnapped in was a two-door, when Youngblood’s was a four-door, and that the man’s hair had some gray running through it, although it was confirmed at trial by a professional hair dresser that Youngblood’s hair had never been dyed and had never been gray. David hadn’t described a man who limped, and one of Youngblood’s legs was shorter than the other. There was even the issue of musical taste: David insisted the driver of the car had been playing country music, and everyone who knew Larry Youngblood knew he hated country music.

But there is no rule that a case gets stronger for the accused when the defense begins calling its witnesses. Although Youngblood’s attorney told the jury that he always wore dark glasses to hide his bad eye—a fact that had gone unmentioned by the young victim—a defense witness and neighbor testified that he only wore those glasses about half the time. An eye doctor who was called to establish David Leon’s bad eyesight, and thus his inability to correctly identify the perpetrator, ended up explaining to the jury that David’s eyesight was actually good enough to enable him to obtain an Arizona driver’s license one day. Perhaps just as harmful were the testimonies of Youngblood himself and his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Both insisted that they remembered the specific, thoroughly uneventful details of the evening in question. That was his alibi: that he was sleeping on a couch the night of the crime.

There was one other witness for the defense, a scientist from California named Keith Inman. His testimony filled 28 pages of the transcript, but after all the evidence about left eyes and right eyes, four-door cars and hair color, and whether the rapist limped or not, it seemed almost like an afterthought. Inman discussed blood types and spermatozoa and P-30 molecules and acid phosphatase and secretors versus non-secretors, all to one end: to show that if David Leon’s underwear had been refrigerated by the police, which it had not been, scientific tests of the semen stains might have exculpated Larry Youngblood. The prosecutor spent her time getting the scientist to concede that those same tests might not have exculpated Youngblood. Such were the limitations of forensic science before the era of DNA testing.

Although the state’s failure to preserve the evidence proved critically important over the next 15 years as the case traveled up and down the appellate ladder, it turned out not to be important at all to the jurors; they took only 40 minutes to convict Youngblood of child molestation, sexual assault, and kidnapping. Right up to the moment of sentencing, Youngblood insisted on his innocence. “Any black man with a bad eye would have been found guilty,” he told his pre-sentence investigator, who nonetheless recommended that he get therapy “geared toward his sexually deviant behavior” upon his eventual release. Larry Youngblood was going to prison.

To what lengths must the state go to ensure that the accused gets a fair trial? Not a perfect trial—the courts are very clear that no one is entitled to that. But the contours of a fair trial have been open to debate since the Constitution was written. For Youngblood the question was an easy one: How in the world could the police get away with not refrigerating the evidence that might have shown that he was innocent?

That is exactly how the Arizona Court of Appeals saw it. Reversing Youngblood’s conviction, the opinion made clear that the court was not accusing the state of bad faith in failing to preserve the evidence; rather, the dismissal was necessary to avoid an unfair trial. Quoting a similar California case, the court held that when the police recover a semen sample of the assailant, “the authorities must take reasonable measures to adequately preserve this evidence.” Youngblood had won, for the time being.

The clothing David wore on the night of the attack (Still from a PBS documentary)

The appellate ladder had one last major rung, though. Rarely does a case get the attention of the United States Supreme Court—the Court denies 99 percent of the petitions asking for its review—but it was Larry Youngblood’s continued misfortune to be in that 1 percent. In the late fall of 1988, only two years after he had won in the Arizona Court of Appeals, six justices led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist reinstated Youngblood’s conviction. Seizing on the lower court’s finding that the police had not acted in bad faith when they failed to refrigerate David Leon’s underwear, the chief justice wrote that the state was under no obligation to preserve potentially useful evidence. In short, unless the state purposely set out to destroy evidence, you were out of luck.

The normally perspicacious Justice Stevens did not agree with the majority’s opinion, but ruled against Youngblood using a different line of reasoning. He did not think that the state’s good or bad faith was the deciding factor; rather, he noted that he might have voted the other way “in a case involving a closer question as to guilt or innocence…[T]his, however, is not such a case.”

Justice Harry Blackmun, joined by the liberal lions William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, dissented: “The Constitution requires that criminal defendants be provided with a fair trial, not merely a ‘good faith’ try at a fair trial,” he wrote. Quoting the maxim that it’s far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free, Blackmun drew the opposite conclusion from Stevens, stating that the evidence was “far from conclusive,” and the possibility that Youngblood might have been exonerated “was not remote.” Perhaps not, but given that Blackmun was writing for the minority, it hardly mattered. The case was sent back to the Arizona courts with instructions that they proceed according to the majority opinion.

But the pendulum had not yet come to rest in the Youngblood case. While the United States Supreme Court has the last word on the meaning of the federal Constitution, each state can interpret its own constitution as it sees fit. Although the language of the Arizona Due Process Clause and the United States Due Process Clause are practically identical (“No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law”), the Arizona Court of Appeals now ruled in Youngblood’s favor again, finding that its constitution provided greater protection to the accused, at least under these facts, than the United States Constitution did. Once again, Youngblood’s convictions were dismissed.

One can only imagine what was running through Youngblood’s mind when yet another appeal was taken. The losing side never complains about endless litigation, and certainly the state of Arizona was happy to have one last chance to uphold its jury verdict—this time in the Arizona Supreme Court, which had chosen not to hear the case the first time around. Following the “bad faith” analysis set forth by Rehnquist, its opinion determined once and for all that Youngblood had not suffered a denial of due process no matter what constitution was applied; his convictions were reinstated. He had been sentenced to 10 ½ years in prison for sexually molesting David Leon, and the time had come to serve it.

David Leon in 1983 (Still from a PBS documentary)

As for David Leon, he never returned to the carnival. The effects of sexual assault on young victims are well-documented, and given the emotional difficulties he was already having before the night of the crime, it is not surprising that his life after it was one of struggle. The immediate impact was obvious in his mood swings—his mother testified that he had gone from being a “real tough type kid” to one who cried at the slightest thing—and his behavior at school became so violent that the administrators regularly had to send him home. David’s mother told Youngblood’s pre-sentence investigator that the incident had been “devastating to the family and a trauma to my son,” and that David had become distant with the family, fearful, and unable to concentrate on his schoolwork. He spoke of taking revenge on his abuser, but his fear of being attacked again caused him to sleep in his mother’s bed

And it got worse from there. In 1993, the same year Youngblood finally went to prison after his long string of appeals had concluded, David was arrested for choking and kicking his girlfriend in front of her 2-year-old son. That put him behind bars, and when he came out, now a full-grown man, he started in with cocaine and alcohol. He went to live with his father, from whom he had been estranged since his parents’ divorce when he was a child, but his father accused him of stealing money for drugs and threw him out. In 1999, David beat up another girlfriend, and that sent him to prison again. A probation officer wrote that David was “a very angry person. He is angry at the whole, entire world.” How angry must he have been when, only a few weeks after his second incarceration, he learned that Larry Youngblood, the man at whom he had directed his rage for more than 15 years, the man he thought had altered the course of his life through the most intimate and brutal violation imaginable, was innocent?

Larry Youngblood after his release from prison (Still from a PBS documentary)

In 1998, after serving more than five years in prison for sexually molesting David Leon, Larry Youngblood went home. But he didn’t stay there. In the summer of 1999, his on-again off-again girlfriend had him removed from her house, and five months later he was arrested for failing to register a new address as a sex offender. By the late 1990s DNA testing had improved by quantum leaps, and Youngblood’s new arrest prompted his lawyer to ask that the small amount of semen left unspoiled 16 years ago be tested again. The state agreed, and on August 9, 2000, prosecutors returned to court and announced that Larry Youngblood had been innocent all along. His lawyer, pointing out that it had taken 16 years to exonerate her client, proclaimed, “This is another example for the public on why we shouldn’t have the death penalty.”

But if Larry Youngblood was innocent, who was guilty? The crime against David Leon was reclassified as unsolved, and the DNA profile of the perpetrator was entered into a national database. The Tucson police chief announced that there were no suspects, and the case remained that way for 16 months, until the evidence was matched to Walter Calvin Cruise, who was serving time for a cocaine conviction in Texas. The prosecutors must have suspected right away that they had finally arrested the right man. Cruise was a black man who had two prior convictions for sexual abuse of children in Houston, and even an arrest for similar conduct in Tucson. And there was one other thing—he had a bad left eye.

Walter Calvin Cruise (Still from a PBS documentary)

When they brought him from a Texas prison into a Tucson courtroom in August 2002, Cruise was sentenced to 24 years in prison for sexually assaulting David Leon, who by that time was 29 years old. Cruise, for his part, said he didn’t know that another man had served a prison sentence for a crime he had committed. He told the court he suffered from alcoholic blackouts, and said he was “sorry for everything I’ve done to hurt anybody in my life.”

This was more than the state of Arizona would ever say to Larry Youngblood. Before he was even authorized to have the DNA retested, Youngblood had to sign releases agreeing not to sue the County Attorney’s Office, the Police Department, or the state Department of Corrections, which ultimately assured that he would not be compensated for his years of wrongful incarceration. Indeed, the prosecution emphasized that it had done nothing wrong even when it moved to have Youngblood’s conviction set aside:

By virtue of this motion, the State is not conceding that the defendant was wrongly arrested in this matter. On the contrary, the State sought the prosecution and conviction of the defendant on these charges on the best evidence available at the time. A jury duly convicted Defendant of the charges.

But something had in fact gone very wrong. An innocent man had been convicted and gone to prison. A guilty man had avoided arrest for almost two decades even after being arrested for similar conduct in the same town, at practically the same time. Evidence that would have prevented both wrongs had been mishandled. And the courts, finding no bad faith by the government, had condoned it all.

The United States Supreme Court does not apologize for mistakes. In September 2014, Henry Lee McCollum was released from North Carolina’s death row after serving 30 years there for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. DNA evidence from a nearby cigarette butt had eventually implicated another man who had been overlooked by law enforcement, even though he lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found and had confessed to a similar rape and murder occurring around the same time.

What made this story even more remarkable was an opinion Justice Antonin Scalia had made in 1994, when the Court refused to hear an appeal from a Texas death row prisoner. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Blackmun famously renounced capital punishment and vowed to no longer “tinker with the machinery of death.” Justice Scalia, concurring with the majority, practically mocked his fellow justice, citing the awful facts of the McCollum case: “Justice Blackmun did not select as the vehicle for his announcement … the case of the 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat,” wrote Scalia, describing the crime for which McCollum had been convicted. “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!”

And yet, when Henry Lee McCollum walked free, Justice Scalia never said a word.

Because Larry Youngblood was ultimately vindicated by scientific evidence, the Youngblood decision now reads like the discarded ending to an epic story—as if the writers of Jaws had drafted an earlier version of the script in which the shark devoured Sheriff Brody. The Supreme Court reached its conclusion at a time when Youngblood seemed guilty and modern DNA testing wasn’t yet available. Its justices were pondering purely hypothetical questions—whether the evidentiary material could have been subjected to tests and the results might have exonerated Youngblood. Today’s science makes their reasoning seem quaint and anachronistic. At the very least, one would have expected Justice Stevens—who agreed with the result but never signed on to the majority’s reliance on the good faith of the government—to rethink his conclusion that there was little room to wonder about Youngblood’s “guilt or innocence.”

And yet in the years since Youngblood’s exoneration and Cruise’s conviction, the United States Supreme Court has cited the opinion favorably three times. In 2009, in the case of District Attorney’s Office of the Third Judicial District v. Osborne, a very divided Court decided that an Alaskan man named William Osborne, who was serving prison time for kidnapping and sexual assault, did not have the constitutional right to post-conviction DNA testing, even though he was willing “to test the evidence at his own expense and to thereby ascertain the truth once and for all.” The majority cited the Youngblood opinion, arguing that DNA testing could lead down a slippery slope:

We would soon have to decide if there is a constitutional obligation to preserve forensic evidence that might later be tested. Cf. Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U. S. 51, 56-58 (1988). If so, for how long? Would it be different for different types of evidence? Would the State also have some obligation to gather such evidence in the first place? How much, and when?

These questions seemed worth pondering, especially given how Youngblood’s story turned out. But Chief Justice John Roberts—writing for himself and fellow conservative Justices Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito—determined that the Court did not want to answer them. He refused to “leap ahead” into a more scientific age, to fundamentally change the trial system by making DNA testing into a constitutional right. Even so, Roberts acknowledged that criminal justice, “like any human endeavor, cannot be perfect. DNA evidence shows that it has not been.” That brief admission of fallibility was as close as the United States Supreme Court ever came to acknowledging Youngblood’s innocence.

Two years later, in Connick v. Thompson, the Court reversed a $14 million damage reward against the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office for the 14 years John Thompson wrongfully spent on death row: The state had failed to turn over test results on blood evidence that later led him to be acquitted of capital murder. The Court ruled against Thompson, refusing to set a precedent that might open the way for wrongly convicted inmates to sue the state for misconduct by its prosecutors. Justices Scalia and Alito concurred in the result and used the Youngblood case to support their opinion that the state had had no obligation to provide the evidence to the defense in the first place. After that decision, Youngblood’s lawyer told an L.A. Times reporter that she found it “astounding” that the Court was still relying on her client’s case: “It was a horrible decision then, and I can't believe they are still citing it, since so many people have been cleared with DNA evidence since then.”

Perhaps even more astounding was a concurring opinion in the virtually forgotten 2004 case of Illinois v. Fisher. Gregory Fisher had been arrested for cocaine possession, made bail, and then skipped trial for the next 10 years. By the time he was caught, the cocaine had been tested four times, found to be real, and then destroyed by the state; however, it had never been tested for his DNA. All of the justices, in an unsigned opinion, readily affirmed the Youngblood decision and law enforcement’s right to destroy the cocaine under those circumstances. All of the justices but one, that is. Justice Stevens concurred but once again refused to join the reasoning of Youngblood. He maintained that there were some cases in which a piece of evidence was so critical that destroying it might make a trial fundamentally unfair, even if the state acted in good faith. Then, remarkably, he wrote: “This, like Youngblood, is not such a case.” Was it possible he hadn’t heard that Larry Youngblood was innocent?

The Supreme Court may remain attached to the Youngblood decision, but in academic circles the opinion has always been the subject of considerable condemnation. A 1989 article in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review declared the Court’s analysis “theoretically unsound and a serious erosion of protections for criminal defendants”; another, in 1990 in the Virginia Law Review, called the opinion “inherently flawed”; a third, in 1995 in the Harvard Law Review said that the bad faith test “needlessly weakened” the defendant’s constitutional protection against unjust prosecution. All of this was long before Youngblood’s misfortune became known. Once that truth became clear, no one captured the irony better than Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, who wrote in a 2001 issue of the New England Law Review:

In law school, we have been taught that, absent bad faith, the destruction of critical evidence will not be deemed prejudicial. As a result, there has been no requirement that law enforcement agencies use due diligence to preserve evidence. This doctrine rested for more than a decade on the shoulders of an innocent man.

But did the Court’s decision have widespread consequences, beyond the years Youngblood himself spent in prison? Apparently so. In 2007, the Denver Post ran a series of articles detailing lost and destroyed evidence that left thousands of accused and victims alike without recourse to scientific testing. In 1992, the NYPD destroyed massive amounts of evidence to make room in its warehouse, which was nearing 100 percent capacity; the same space limitations caused Houston’s police force to destroy rape kits through the 1990s; and between 1991 and 2001, New Orleans purged evidence for 2,500 rape cases.

In each of these purges, the lack of storage space may have seemed like a plausible rationale, but the timing was often suspect. The NYPD’s decision came only a few months after New York’s first DNA exoneration. In Houston, the rape kits were thrown out shortly after then-Governor George W. Bush pardoned a man based on DNA results.  “If the implication is that they threw out the evidence because they thought it might produce further exonerations,” then-United States Attorney General Janet Reno told the Denver Post, “that is cause for great concern.” Yet not a single appeal concerning lost evidence in Houston, New York City or New Orleans prompted a “bad faith” finding by a court.

Indeed, the Youngblood standard has even protected the state in situations where evidence was pointedly destroyed—with life-or-death consequences. In Virginia, Robin Lovitt came within a day of execution after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his claim that bloody scissors had been thrown out by a chief deputy clerk, even though two of the clerk’s subordinates, advising him that Lovitt was on death row, urged that the scissors and other exhibits be kept. In fact, the destruction of those scissors occurred shortly after a new statute had required that such evidence be preserved until after an inmate’s execution. All of this was presented in the Virginia state and federal courts, but to no avail. The clerk “made a serious error in judgment in destroying the evidence,” the Fourth Circuit concluded. But “the error cannot be attributed to the police or prosecution … and there existed no evidence of bad faith on anyone’s part.”

When the courts refused to act, then-Governor Mark Warner stepped into the breach, commuting Lovitt’s death sentence to life without parole. “In this case, the actions of an agent of the Commonwealth, in a manner contrary to the express direction of the law, comes at the expense of a defendant facing society's most severe and final sanction,” wrote Warner. “The Commonwealth must ensure that every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly.” Still, Robin Lovitt will spend the rest of his life in prison. Hundreds of other inmates, without recourse to lost, mishandled, or destroyed DNA evidence, will do so as well.

Victims suffer, too, when evidence goes missing. The Denver Post series told the story of Janette Bodden, whose daughter had been raped and murdered in 1989. No one had ever been arrested, and 14 years later, she learned that it was unlikely anyone ever would: The evidence from the case had been destroyed. “That was almost like if they had murdered her all over again, when I found out about that,” she said. “You lose your child, your baby, you want justice, truth.”

There was never any question David Leon would suffer permanent damage from the sexual abuse he endured at the age of 10. The prosecutor told Youngblood’s jury, “Unfortunately for David, he’s not going to forget. He’s not going to forget. He’ll never forget.” After obtaining a conviction, the same prosecutor argued for an aggravated sentence for Youngblood: “There is a lifelong impact on this child as a result of this act, of this violation that was committed on him by this defendant. It’s not only an impact on that child but on his entire family.” David’s mother, speaking to the pre-sentence investigator, said that her son needed therapy and an explanation as to why he should not feel “dirty and useless in the eyes of society.”

Fifteen years later, when Youngblood turned out to be innocent and the actual perpetrator was still unknown—when the only one in jail was her own son David—Patricia Leon said that she did not accept the DNA test as proof that Youngblood was innocent. “The only infallible thing is God,” she told Mark Kimble of the Tucson Citizen. But two years after that, when Walter Cruise pled guilty to molesting David and apologized for everything he had done, there was little choice but to believe him.

Larry Youngblood was not in the courtroom when the justice system finally got around to Walter Cruise; his lawyer invited him to the sentencing, but he decided not to come. As he told the New York Times, “For 17 years, I knew I was innocent. They tried to get me to plea for less time, but I would never confess, especially to something like that. I am angry. They took the best years of my life.”

Youngblood spent his last years panhandling on the streets of Tucson. In a grimly ironic twist, he was arrested in 2003 for pulling a knife on a Subway employee, but only after police first detained an innocent man a block south of the sandwich shop—forcing him to his knees, pointing a gun at him, and keeping him handcuffed for 10 minutes until a Subway employee told the officer he had made a mistake. The man on his knees was Julian Kunnie, the University of Arizona’s director of Africana studies. “Never before have I experienced such humiliation and degradation,” he said. “My human and civil rights were violated solely on the basis of my skin color.” Youngblood remained homeless until he died of a drug overdose in 2007.

The other victim of the 1983 crime fared no better. Learning that he had identified the wrong man only fueled David’s rage toward the true perpetrator. “I was raped repeatedly, brutally. I was 10 years old,” he said. “It was bad. He should have killed me.” Had the mistaken conviction of an innocent man made the pain worse? David’s sister certainly thought so. “I spent most of my life and wasted most of my life hating Larry Youngblood,” she told the judge at Cruise’s trial. “We’ve never been the same. We, without option, were given life sentences ... This is something we will deal with forever.”

David Leon dealt with it for two more years. The day after he died, the local newspaper offered no explanation for the accident—the rails were straight in that area, and the night had been clear. A police sergeant speculated that he might have been attempting to cross the tracks. If so, was there a moment when he saw the glimmer of the headlight and thought that maybe, just maybe, it might be easier not to get out of the way? Or was his brain so fuzzy with alcohol that he didn’t even see it coming? It’s impossible to know. What we do know is that the four-mile stretch of Interstate 10, from the carnival to the train, represented a world of anguish for the young man who had been twice victimized—first by the abuser himself, and then by a justice system more committed to convictions than truth. “I figured that society wasn't fair. I give myself credit. I survived,” Leon said at the Cruise sentencing. Surely he deserved more than that.