Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”     Frederick Bastiat

May 10, 2007

200 Innocent and Counting

by Stephen Littau

Back in January I wrote a post about how our criminal justice system needs significant reform. A truly wonderful organization founded in 1992 called The Innocence Project is trying to bring about similar reforms I wrote about as well as a few others. Thanks in part to the efforts of The Innocence Project, 200 wrongfully convicted are now free. Of the 200 exonerated, 14 were on death row (This in itself is making me lean a lot more against the death penalty).

While the fact that these individuals have regained their freedom is very good news, this also raises a whole lot of other questions. For these 200 individuals, there is the question of “now what?” meaning, what are they going to do with the rest of their lives and how do they reintegrate into society? Some states offer the wrongfully convicted compensation for time served while others won’t even apologize. Another question raised is “how many more are doing time for crimes they did not commit?” It’s not hard to imagine that these 200 cases are representative of a much larger number. Perhaps even more important questions are “how does this happen in our system which promises liberty and justice for all?” and “how do we fix the system?”

To the last two questions, The Innocence Project has found some answers. The top seven reasons why these individuals were convicted: eyewitness misidentification, unreliable or limited science, false confessions, forensic science fraud or misconduct, government misconduct, bad informants or “snitches,” bad lawyering, or a combination of these causes. While challenging, all of these causes can be reexamined and be reformed with some imagination and common sense.

The Innocence Project has some proposed solutions to these problems such as reforming the methods for eyewitness identification, interrogation reforms such as recording interrogations, preserving DNA and other evidence even after convictions, crime lab oversight, criminal justice reform commissions, and perhaps most importantly, exoneree compensation. If we demand justice for both the victims and the accused, none of these reforms should be too much to ask.

Recommended Reading: 200 Exonerated: Too Many Wrongfully Convicted [pdf]

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4 Comments

  1. There were several issues worthy of comment and continued improvement in the Criminal Justice System; however, my comment will only deal in a small spectrum of government misconduct, which would include forensic science fraud or misconduct.
    I have seen cases brought to court which appeared to be nothing more than a railroad intended to run over the rights of ignorant citizens fearful of having the full weight of the court system come down on them in the event that they didn’t cave in to a prosecutor’s demands to accept a plea bargain agreement. The cases I’m referring to had seriously flawed evidence, questionable witness statements or some other “hole” which a competent defense attorney would have been able to destroy to have the case thrown out.
    It would be helpful to have some sort of penalty assigned to government employees who overstate the State’s case in order to obtain guilty convictions. In the event of evidence tampering or fraud there are already laws on the books; however, to claim evidence which does not exist as if in a poker game to obtain guilty pleas stoops below unconscionable. Perhaps a penalty in prison that would match the lowest agreed upon plea bargain agreement could be imposed on those who intentionally or willfully deprive any citizen of his/her freedom based on such misconduct; maybe that would provide the balance which citizens had previously presumed existed in purity and naiveté.

    Comment by T F Stern — May 10, 2007 @ 3:07 pm
  2. I don’t think we need to make a new class of crimes for rogue prosecutions.

    Trying to get an innocent person convicted of a crime should be punished depending on the sentence sought:
    1) Attempts to get someone executed = attempted murder,
    2) Attempts to get someone jailed = attempted kidnapping,
    3) Attempts to get someone fined = attempted theft.

    I think a lot of prosecutorial misconduct would be less attractive if getting caught meant being charged with one or more felony counts.

    Comment by tarran — May 10, 2007 @ 9:57 pm
  3. Some clarification

    5 death row inmates have been cleared by DNA

    9 additional prison inmates, who had previously been on death row, but who had been, for various reasons, taken off death row, and were resentenced to prison terms, were cleared by DNA.

    Do we know how many prosecutors have been tried and convicted for intentional wrongdoing in a criminal case?

    Because innocents are at risk of executions, some wrongly presume that innocents are better protected implementing a life without parole sentence, instead.

    What many forget to do is weigh the risk to innocents within a life sentence. When doing that, we find that innocents are more at risk with a life sentence.

    First, we all know that living murderers, in prison, after escape or after our failures to incarcerate them, are much more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers.

    Secondly, no knowledgeable party questions that the death penalty has the most extensive due process protections in US criminal law. Therefore, it is logically conclusive, that actual innocents are more likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment and more likely to die in prison serving under that sentence, that it is that an actual innocent will be executed.

    Thirdly, 10 recent studies find for death penalty deterrence. Some believe that all studies with contrary findings negate those 10 studies. They don’t. Studies which don’t find for deterrence don’t say no one is deterred, but that they cannot measure those deterred, if they are.

    Ask yourself: “What prospect of a negative outcome doesn’t deter some?” There isn’t one, although committed anti death penalty folk may say the death penalty is the only one. However, the premier anti death penalty scholar accepts it as a given that the death penalty is a deterrent, but does not believe it to be a greater deterrent than a life sentence. I find the evidence compelling that death is feared more than life – even in prison.

    In choosing to end the death penalty, or in choosing not implement it, some have chosen to put more innocents at risk.

    ——–

    Furthermore, possibly we have sentenced 20-25 actually innocent people to death since 1973, or 0.3% of those so sentenced. Those have been released upon post conviction review.

    COMPLETE REPORT UPON REQUEST

    Comment by Dudley Sharp — May 11, 2007 @ 3:04 am
  4. T.F.

    I agree, the most disturbing reason for these unjust prosecutions is the misconduct by government officials and bad science. I can understand that our criminal justice system is a human system and is subect to errors but the fraud is unacceptable.

    The Duke rape case is but one very high profile example of what can go wrong. I think the suggested reforms by the Innocence Project are very reasonable. It should be very expensive to the government if it wrongly prosecutes someone. The Nifongs of the world need to be prosecuted for failing to perform thier duties; prosecutors have a higer duty to justice than defense lawyers.

    Not only is prosecuting the wrong person an injustice to the person doing the time but also an injustice to the victims. Failing to put the wrong person behind bars gives the real criminal a pass. All I know is the criminal justice system needs some serious reform.

    Comment by Stephen Littau — May 11, 2007 @ 11:57 pm

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