Book Talk
Jessica S. Henry, Smoke But No Fire Cover
No Crime but Much Harm
by Sherri Kimmel
NEW YORK CITY public-defender-turned-professor Jessica Henry ’90 happened to stumble upon an astonishing statistic as she was doing research for a course she teaches on wrongful convictions. “I thought, ‘That can’t be!’ I actually emailed the National Registry of Exonerations and asked, ‘Is that correct? Is it really true that one-third of all wrongful convictions involve people convicted of a crime that never happened?’”

An affirmative response led her to delve deeply into the grave flaws in the criminal justice system underlying that startling statistic. The result is what she says is the first book to explore the causes and consequences of convicting individuals of crimes that never happened.

“No-crime wrongful convictions are such a waste of human lives and criminal justice resources,” she says.

The damage begins “with the police and extends through prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges,” Henry adds. “The harm caused to the innocent person who is wrongly convicted, his or her family and society at large is tremendous. In a democratic society, we do not have an interest in prosecuting, convicting and incarcerating people for crimes that never occurred. That is not in our vision of what justice should be.”

Henry’s book is chockful of examples, but one of the most compelling describes Frances and Dan Keller, who ran a day-care center in Texas. Their supposed crimes included killing and dismembering babies. In 1992, the couple was convicted of sexual abuse and each sentenced to 48 years in prison — for crimes that were entirely fictional.

After 21 years the Kellers, by then in their 70s, were exonerated and released.

Jessica S. Henry, Smoke But No Fire cover
Jessica Henry '90 Portrait
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Convictions without commission of a crime are “a waste of human lives,” says Jessica Henry ’90.
“When you see the image of them leaving prison — old, hunched over, people who had suffered so much for so long — it is really heartbreaking,” Henry says.

An associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey, Henry majored in sociology and economics at Bucknell. She says a class in Law and Society with Professor Matt Silberman “helped shape the course of my career. I applied to law school to be a public defender — that’s what I wanted to do. I attribute that to his syllabus. I found all of the readings he put on reserve just fascinating.”

Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened. Jessica Henry ’90 (University of California Press, 2020)
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Photo: Susan Freundlich