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Punishing the Innocent

This is an absolutely awful story (link no longer available).  The story of an innocent man who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and who served 25 years in prison.  This appears to be the real life version of the Shawshank Redemption (and the Fugitive).

The tale is horrible.  Think about it.  A man’s wife is murdered.  That is a horrific exerience.  But instead of receiving the assistance of his family and the state, he is persecuted by them.  He is tried for murder and convicted.  The prosecutors, however, wrongfully fail to provide him with all of the Brady Material (that is, exonerating evidence) that the law requires to be provided to him.  When his lawyers later seek to have DNA testing of the evidence, the prosecutors resist strenuously.  Finally, it turns out that not only was the man innocent, but another murderer got away with this and other murders.

But it only gets worse.  The sister of the murdered wife blamed the husband.  She adopted their son and appeared to have poisoned him towards his father.  While the father was legally allowed to meet his son twice a year (in prison), the son asked to be relieved of this duty.  The father acquiesced.  Thus, the man spent 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, was blamed by the community for the murder of a woman he loved, and lost the love of and contact with his son.

The prosecutor’s lame excuse: he was a young prosecutor.

Such wrongdoing is hideous.  Sorry, but based on desserts, the people responsible for withholding the exonerating evidence should be in prison.  For a long time.  For a very long time.

It is perhaps understandable for the wife’s sister to have strongly supported the prosecution of this innocent man.  From her perspective, she suffered a horrible loss and the claims of innocence from her sister’s husband might have seemed like OJ’s statements about the need to find the “real killer.”  But however hard it is, that woman should realize her mistake and apologize.  More importantly, one would hope the son, who had been poisoned, would reconcile with his father.

These cases appear to be harder than they first seem.  The knee jerk reaction of simply putting the prosecutors away for a long time may be counterproductive, since their cooperation is sometimes needed, under existing law, to release the innocent person.  The prosecutors, moreover, may resist DNA testing and other avenues to exoneration in order to protect their own hides.

I am learning more about this area of the law.  But based on what I do know, some significant reforms are needed.  The conviction of an innocent person is a tragedy that should be minimized.  It not only wrongly punishes one person, it also allows the actual murderer to remain free.

Reader Discussion

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on June 12, 2012 at 02:51:49 am

Good article Mike.....There are countless cases like the one you have described at all levels of government. Some of the cases are not as horrific as this one and involve lesser crimes. But still,justice must be served. There are,however,provisions in the law (especially on the Federal level) that allow for a legal and monetary redress of grievances. The only problem I see with these lawful provisions is that the perpetrator of the miscarriage of the law,other then being forced to resign,never loses anything tangible in the process. Rarely does a prosecutor,judge,law enforcement officer or bureaucrat have to spend any jail time for their misfeasance or malfeasance in office. If financial restitution is imposed on the perpetrator of the judicial miscarriage it is the government(taxpayer)that pays the fine. Hardly ever is the individual perpetrator held personally financially responsible. If the law was set up so that if a prosecutor,judge,law enforcement officer or any other government agent willfully or intentionally withheld evidence or for that matter knowingly denied a defendant their civil and Constitutional rights in any way, then that perpetrator should be held personally financially responsible to compensate the victim of his or her malfeasance. I think that prosecutors,judges,law enforcement agents and others would think twice about trying to get away with such miscarriages if they knew they could possibly lose everything of value that they owned plus be ordered to have money taken out of their pay for several years into the future in order to compensate a victim of judicial misconduct.

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Image of libertarian jerry
libertarian jerry
on June 12, 2012 at 09:38:45 am

Any reforms to address this type of case must take into account the structural problems that cause false convictions. First, most if not all prosecuting attorneys are elected, and in order to get elected the candidates must promise the voters that they will be "tough on crime.". Incumbent prosecutors show the voters that they are "tough on crime" by touting a high conviction rate; the vast (overwhelming) majority of voters have little or no knowledge of the various rules of law, the individual cases, or the ethical and constitutional duties of a prosecutor, so they vote for the candidate they consider most likely to get the maximum number of accused persons "off the street". There is simply no incentive for an incumbent who wants to be reelected to follow the rules. Second, as you've noted, prosecutors have an almost unlimited immunity from claims of wrongful prosecution, or even of denial of constitutional rights by withholding evidence required to be disclosed by the Brady rules. There is just no meaningful downside to a prosecutor withholding any evidence that they can argue is not required to be disclosed (even if the argument is pretty flimsy, or even absurd). Third, and most important (in my view), recognize the inequality of resources available to the State and almost all criminal defendants. Over 95% of all criminal defendants are indigent, and among the remaining 5%, all but a very, very few would be very hard pressed to come up with the $100,000 or more which would be required to pay for a decent defense, including attorneys' fees, costs of investigators, experts, independent testing of scientific evidence, etc., etc. A thorough defence to a capital charge could easily cost $250,000, $500,000, or more. But for all who can't afford that (i.e., 99.9% of all defendants), the State pays a trifling percentage resulting in most defendants being able to put up only a token defense. The State, meanwhile, can throw virtually unlimited resources at the case to insure a conviction. The criminal justice system is rigged against anyone accused; even if you can scrape together enough to put on a meaningful defence, and obtain an acquittal, you'll never recover the lost time and the huge financial resources that such a defense required, meaning that the defendant (and his or her family) is impoverished by the experience. Until these structural flaws are addressed, false convictions will continue to occur.

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Daniel Artz
on June 12, 2012 at 10:16:21 am

There is much to be said, much to learn and much to be done to provide determinations of "Justice," in the administration of Criminal Law.

The principal threat to individual liberty in our country today is Prosecutorial Discretion.
[ attributed to Edward Bennett Williams from my direct exposure ]

He also pointed out that the Police and "Night" Courts, were the "First line of defense of individual liberty;" and urged all beginning lawyers to attend and experience the impacts of "law enforcement," and the means employed to those ends.

More will be added later about the scholarship and teaching of the late William J. Stuntz (U. Va. Law '84), and the works of his students.

A beginning can be made for change by requiring the prosecuting authorities to indemnify exonerated defendants for the full damages (just compensation) upon acquital or failure to convict. That would begin having an impact on the operating budgets of the political offices. It could also give rise to better "contingent fee" defense counsel.

It must be kept to the forefront in all matters of determinations of "Justice" that provisions for "discretion" necessarily result in "arbitrary" conduct. The history of the progress of human freedoms has required escape from, and elimination of, the arbitrary actions of some over the lives of others.

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Image of Richard Schweitzer
Richard Schweitzer
on June 12, 2012 at 18:02:41 pm

"The criminal justice system is characterized by extraordinary discretion - over the definition of crimes (legislatures can criminalize as much as they wish), over enforcement (police and prosecutors can arrest and charge whom they wish), and over funding (legislatures can allocate resources as they wish). In a system sold dominated by a discretionary decisions, discrimination is easy and constitutional law has surprisingly little to say about it."

William J. Stuntz, 'The Uneasy Relationship between
Criminal Procedure and Criminal Justice"

" We are likely to come ever closer to a world in which the law on the books makes everyone a felon, and in which prosecutors and the police both define the law on the street and decide who has violated it."

William J Stuntz, " The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law"

" Criminal procedure's rules and remedies are embedded in a larger system, a system that can adjust to those rules in ways other than obeying them. And the rolls can in turn respond to the system in a variety of ways, not all of them pleasant. The more one focuses on that dynamic, the more problematic the law of criminal procedure seems . . .. Ever since the 1960s, the right has argued that criminal procedure free ease to many of the guilty. The better criticism may be that it helps to imprison too many of the innocent."

William J Stuntz, " The Uneasy Relationship between
Criminal procedure and Criminal Justice"

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Image of Richard Schweitzer
Richard Schweitzer

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.