COLA Connections Newsletter: Winter 2015

Judicial Error: An RIT Student’s Quest to Expose the Injustice of Betty Tyson’s Incarceration

RIT’s College of Liberal Arts’ Department of Criminal Justice is brimming with students and faculty passionate about justice, and dedicated to fairness in law enforcement. That’s why CJ welcomed Taunja Isaac, a graduate student in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences’ School of Film & Animation, who collaborated with the CJ department in production and screening a documentary film on a topic close to her heart: the unjust incarceration of Rochester resident Betty Tyson.

The documentary, called “Minus 25: Betty Tyson,” was produced by Isaac in the summer of 2014 as her MFA thesis. The CJ department has helped organize screenings to promote the film, and to raise awareness about potential abuses of power in the criminal justice system. One such screening took place November 12th at 5pm in the Carlson Auditorium. Isaac and Betty Tyson herself were present for questions and answers, which produced a lively discussion of the case with the approximately one hundred students in attendance.

Tyson was wrongfully convicted of murder in Rochester in May 1973, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Her trial, however, was riddled with serious doubts: her jury of “peers” were all white, the scant evidence against her was tainted, and her admission of guilt was coerced through intimidation and manipulation of her youth and poverty. Tyson served 25 years but was exonerated and freed in 1998 after glaring gaps in the case were exposed.

One of the teens who testified against Tyson recanted his statement, claiming that the detective on the case, William Mahoney, had threatened to kill him. Tyson says this same chief detective had forced her to sign a confession that she later recanted. He was investigated several times for allegedly abusing suspects and resigned in 1980 after fabricating evidence in another case.

After her release, Tyson sued the city of Rochester for 25 million dollars, eventually settling for 2.5 million (of which she received about 1.2 million after court and attorney fees). Still, Tyson says “I don’t have what I should have” to make up for the part of her life stolen by corruption. She made the most of her time in prison by trying to adjust to life on the inside. Even though she feels that the quality of life in her all women’s prison was tolerable, Tyson says the ordeal has made her more skeptical of all court decisions.

Isaac met Tyson around 1988; their friendship runs deep and this project has been something Isaac has wanted to do for a long time. Tyson says that her current support system is lacking, and that she’s thankful for all that Isaac has done for her.

Former mayor and RIT faculty member William Johnson, who was elected in 1993 and served for 12 years, appears in the film as a primary source and a strong mentor for Isaac in getting this story out. The film is structured around Tyson’s recounting of her story in her own voice, and judiciously complemented by reenactments.

It is difficult to tell Tyson’s story without casting light on racial disparities in our criminal justice system. With increased media coverage of recent killings of unarmed young black men by white police officers, this documentary shows that certain forms of corruption and racial bias have existed for a long time and the only way to combat these problems is through exposure like this.

What is relevant to the Criminal Justice department is how these types of cases can be dissected and the errors of the past can more likely be avoided in the future. Education and awareness have helped reduce coercion and injustice in our criminal justice system since the 1970s. Isaac’s film not only informs a new generation about a corrupt case, but gives us the tools to battle this type of injustice and keep Tyson’s legacy alive.