Another Wrongful Conviction Case

There has been another exoneration of two wrongly convicted people.  I have blogged about these travesties of justice in the past.  Such wrongful convictions are just so very sad.  Innocent people lose decades of their lives and are treated as horrible wrongdoers by society.  The compensation they receive, when they receive it, is woefully inadequate.

This conviction is a familiar one in several ways.  First, the subject of this prosecution – claims of child abuse against child care workers for extreme behavior supported only by wild testimony of a child after significant opportunity for her story to expand – was part of a whole epidemic in the 1980s, as Dorothy Rabinowitz, among others, has explained.

Second, like many other wrongful convictions, exoneration is harder than release.  While the Kellers were released in 2013, they have not been able to secure an exoneration (and the benefits that provides) until now.

Third, these wrongful convictions and the difficulty of obtaining release or exoneration are very often the result of wrongful, and often the result of illegal, behavior on the part of police and prosecutors.  In addition, there are sometimes honest mistakes.

In this case, the only bit of evidence supporting the allegations was a young physican’s examination of a girl, which he believed suggested abuse.  But after the trial, he learned that his conclusion was mistaken.  He called up the “Austin Police Department after he realized his error but was rebuffed by the detective, who was ‘convinced they were guilty.’”  (Shouldn’t there be some accountability for this? We don’t even find out his name.)  The doctor was also deceived by the prosecutors in other ways.

Eventually, the Kellers were released from prison when the court concluded that they were entitled to a new trial.  But the prosecutors would not grant them exoneration, which was needed to allow them to receive compensation from the state for a wrongful conviction.  Why not? The DA, Rosemary Lehmberg, admitted that there was no evidence to use at a new trial, but somehow could not see her way to conclude that the Kellers were innocent.  It turns out that the DA was the head of the office’s child abuse unit at the time of the Keller prosecution.  How outrageous!  Does anyone think she had a conflict?  So now she has two misdeeds on her hands – the original prosecution and the failure to exonerate.  Yet, she pays no price for these misdeeds.

Fourth, how should these cases of possible wrongful conviction be handled by the legal system?  Things have certainly improved with DNA testing, but still there are cases like the Kellers’ where DNA is not involved.  The article mentions that a conviction integrity unit was involved in this case.  Such units make sense and hopefully they avoid the conflict of interest involving DA Lehmberg reviewing her own past action.  So they represent a step in the right direction.

But once again the system does not go far enough.  These units are typically in the same office as those responsible for the flawed convictions.  These units should be separate, so they can have independence.  I can understand why the powers that be, among prosecutors and the police, want the units in these places.  I can’t understand how it makes sense as a matter of public policy.