Deadline Now: Jim and Nancy Petro
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Deadline Now: Jim and Nancy Petro

Friday, March 25, 2011

“Wrongful criminal conviction is much more frequent than most Americans believe. The thought of imprisoned innocent people haunted me. I became determined to try to do something about it.” 

- Jim Petro, Former Attorney General of Ohio

The flaws in America’s execution of justice lead to an unacceptable number of wrongful criminal convictions. Former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro was confronted with this issue when the guilt of several convicts serving life sentences was called into question. Petro was the first state attorney general to intervene on behalf of an imprisoned convict, an Ohio Innocence Project client.

In their eye-opening book, False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent, Jim and Nancy Petro detail and challenge commonly held myths of justice and show how citizens can prevent miscarriages of justice.

Last month, Ohio Governor John Kasich appointed Jim Petro to be the state's next Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents.

Here are Jack Lessenberry's Final Thoughts for this edition of Deadline Now:

Back in the 1980s, a writer I knew did a magazine cover story on a man from Tecumseh, Michigan named Henry Lee Lucas, who was believed to be the worst serial killer of all time.
Lucas was then believed to have killed as many as six hundred people, beginning with his mother, back in 1960.

He was a cheerful, gap-toothed monster who by that point, had happily confessed to bone-chilling crime after crime. Reporters, including my acquaintance, ate it up, and begged him for more.
Police and prosecutors across the country believed in Henry Lee Lucas’s confessions too. After all, he enabled them to “solve” old crimes and clean up their records.

Then, one day, somebody noticed that he had confessed to two murders a few hours and thousands of miles apart. It would have been physically impossible for him to be in both places at the same time. Detectives then made up fictional murders and started asking him about them.

Henry Lee confessed to those too, and as a bonus, said he’d killed Jimmy Hoffa as well. The whole thing than began to unravel. Today, Lucas, who died in prison ten years ago, is believed to have killed perhaps only three people, one of whom really was his mother.

His story got me wondering about the system. If it was so easy for Lucas to fool prosecutors, who were under great pressure to solve cases, didn’t it stand to reason that a number of truly innocent men and women were being convicted?

We now know the answer is, tragically, yes. Former Attorney General Petro and his wife Nancy have done a public service with their book False Justice, and with their involvement with the Innocence Project.

Now, Jim Petro starting a new adventure as chancellor of Ohio universities, a job he is taking over in a time of twin crises. The state has seldom been as pinched for money. At the same time, higher education has never been for success in life.

Figuring out how to adequately solve this problem just might make proving a convicted man’s innocence look easy.