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Local exoneree shares journey, discusses justice system

| Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Notre Dame Exoneration Project invited local exoneree Ray McCann and his attorney, Greg Swygert, to share McCann’s story with Notre Dame students Tuesday at the Eck Hall of Law. The two discussed McCann‘s road to justice and exonerations‘ role in bringing about political reform.

McCann was accused of sexually assaulting and then suffocating an 11-year-old girl, Jodi Parrack, to death in 2007. Due to a lack of any kind of physical evidence linking McCann to the crime, he was never prosecuted for the sexual assault and murder of Parrack. Even so, friends and some family turned against him as news that he was the prime suspect spread. Then, in 2014, McCann was arrested and prosecutors instead tried to charge McCann with 5 different counts of perjury, which McCann speculated may have been a technique used to elicit a confession.

“Personally, I thought it was a scare tactic,” he said. “Call it tunnel vision or whatever they had, they thought I had something to do with it. Personally I think it was their way of holding me for as long as they could to see if I had anything to due with it”

These counts of perjury were largely based on the conflicting recollections of people McCann interacted with around the case eight years after the fact. However due to a unique statute of Michigan law, perjury in a case connected to a murder carries a potential life sentence.

Due to the nature of the evidence, the prosecutor only proceeded with one of the perjury charges, which relied on supposed video evidence that later proved to be of dubious quality and usefulness. McCann took a plea deal in which he pled no contest to the single perjury charge and was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

“I was wrongfully convicted of a perjury charge,” McCann said. “I took the plea, no contest, because I knew it was the fastest way to get back to my family.”

McCann spent six months in isolation, during which time he lost his voice due to lack of use. He was then moved to a prison where, due to his background as a former cop and the nature of the crime he was associated with, he received death threats upon arrival.

During McCann’s time in prison, a man named Daniel Furlong confessed to the sexual assault and murder of Jodi Parrack. His DNA was also found on her body, making it clear Furlong was the culprit. Though Furlong insisted that he did not know McCann and that he had nothing to do with the crime, McCann stayed in prison until he had served his full sentence of 20 months.  

“Being in jail, knowing you didn’t do anything wrong, it’s a scary feeling,” McCann said.

With the help of Greg Swygert and the Center on Wrongful Convictions, McCann was eventually exonerated after a lengthy legal battle. However, irreparable damage had already been done. After his time in prison, McCann had trouble readjusting to a world that still remembered him for a crime he did not commit. He struggled with acclimating to life outside of prison as well as depression, drinking and even suicidal thoughts.

Swygert focused on the particulars of this case and the larger issues in the justice system it brought to light in his portion of the lecture.

“What Ray’s case most shows is prosecutorial overreach,” he said. “Ray wasn’t charged with the rape and murder of Jodi Parrack, he was charged with perjury. It was done to coerce Ray to talk.”

Another ethical issue, Swygert said, involved the tactics prosecutors used to try to make McCann confess.

“The prosecutor went and acted like an interrogator, he told him things that were not true,” Swygert said. “Which raises some ethical questions.”

This is because, unlike cops who are generally allowed to lie to interrogation suspects in order to get information or a confession, McCann was lied to by a prosecutor during what was technically a legal proceeding. This puts the exchange on shaky ground morally, and highlights a potential problem, or at least a degree of moral ambiguity in Michigan law.  

“The system isn’t perfect”, professor Jimmy Gurule, who introduced McCann and Swygert, said.

Gurule said 1 in 3 exonerations involved cases in which the person had been sentenced to a minimum of 50 years. Organizations like the Center on Wrongful Convictions look to right these wrongs through exoneration but use the issues raised to improve the justice system.  

“If some good comes out of this, its that people are now working to make sure that this doesn’t happen to other people,” McCann said.

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