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Wrongful Convictions: An Expert Look At How They Happen

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Four Philadelphia men have been set free over the past 10 months after spending years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. So how do wrongful convictions happen? Some of the kinks in criminal justice sometimes lead to erroneous results.

It's been roughly 24 hours since Shaurn Thomas walked out of the Frackville Correctional Facility a free man -- and he can't stop smiling.

At 43, Thomas served 24 years behind bars for the 1990 murder of a North Philadelphia man. False witness testimony led to the conviction; strong alibi evidence that he was at court on another matter at the time, as well as other evidence, never made it to the jury.

"But I wasn't giving up and I wasn't getting tired," Thomas said.

Thomas' fight caught the eye of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project; their lawyers secured his freedom.

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But his story isn't unique. Anthony Wright and James Dennis each did 25 years and Donte Rollins did a decade for crimes they did not commit. They've all been released.

"It's safe to assume that we get two to eight percent of cases wrong across the country," said John Holloway, who runs the Quattrone Center at Penn, which researches errors in criminal justice and ways to correct them. He says 2,000 people have been exonerated nationally; nearly 70 in Pennsylvania.

Are there any commonalities in these wrongful conviction cases?

"A lot of these cases have inaccurate eyewitness testimony," Holloway said.

That and false testimony; forced confessions; jailhouse informants; lack of forensic evidence; and human mistake can lead to problems. That and the slow pace of the system leaves defendants like Thomas behind bars for years, even decades.

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"The good news is we are learning more and more about identifying those cases up front," Holloway said.

If the DA's Office declines to re-try Thomas, it'll be the first exoneration for the revamped conviction integrity unit.

"The wrongful conviction unity they've got now," Thomas said, "I give them respect."

So Thomas and mom Hazel are both optimistic that justice is on his side.

"My body was locked up," he said, "but never my mind."

And thanks to his mom, his daughter Habiba and his attorneys, Thomas will keep on smiling as a free man for the rest of his life.


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