A moment from the old days that haunts America

Four men spent decades in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, because the police detective operating the case hadn’t done his research properly. The four (all Black men) were exonerated and the detective who convicted them lost his job when a media uproar exploded in 1987. Lyle Jacobs, the now former detective, was forced to testify about his own failures, and he was immediately fired.

But many questions remained. Though Jacobs didn’t mention the police conducting a search of the town’s records, there were pages missing, and it took decades before Jacobs’s testimony was corroborated. Some suggested that Jacobs’s sentence was wildly disproportionate to that of his peers. Jacobs later wrote a book about his experiences. His experiences, however, took place in 1987 — the year of his own exoneration — and it’s 20 years since a report highlighted his flaws and absolved him of blame. That same year, Greg Bentley, of The Huffington Post, took a good look at the historical context of Jacobs’s case. “It had a very prominent black figure,” Bentley said. “It was one of the country’s bigger racial embarrassments. It was the oldest racism case, The Menendez Murders, that you could ever read up on.”

Years later, a report he published, “Police Brutality and Racial Justice in Stillwater, Okla.,” reaffirmed evidence that had clearly been overlooked in Jacobs’s original trial. The report included evidence regarding three decades of unsolved cases. A report about the case was aired on NPR in 2016. It was renewed again after a report at The New York Times in 2017. “This is something that still plays in America’s head today,” said Nathaniel Bethea, editor of public radio’s WNYC, in the broadcast. “Even after nearly three decades, for whatever reason, police still think they can find out who committed these crimes, even if they have no evidence to substantiate it.”

Listen to Nathaniel Bethea’s show on NPR Talk of the Nation

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