James Bain’s 35-year nightmare began as so many wrongful convictions do—with an eyewitness identification gone awry. On March 4, 1974, someone snatched a sleeping 9-year-old from a home in Lake Wales, Fla., raping the boy in a nearby field. When the child returned, he could offer only a sketchy illustration of his attacker. He was a young man with bushy sideburns and facial hair. But that was enough for the boy’s uncle, who thought he recognized Bain in the details.

With police pressing for a...

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