There is no longer any way for the defenders of the criminal justice system, or indeed American democracy and its ideals, to deny that thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of Americans languish in prison for crimes they did not commit. This fact is so terrible in its implications for the nation, the system, the public and the legal profession that I feel incapable of grasping it all, still, though this has been slowly dawning on me for a long time. Right now, it is all I can manage to escape denial, for the deprivation of so many innocent people of their liberty is my responsibility, as well as yours, and that of everyone else. Even in the midst of serious policy debates over so much else that is vital to our future, how can anyone argue that this isn’t the highest priority of all?
Yesterday, the Washington Post revealed that
“Justice Department officials have known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people, but prosecutors failed to notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled. Officials started reviewing the cases in the 1990s after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials. Instead of releasing those findings, they made them available only to the prosecutors in the affected cases, according to documents and interviews with dozens of officials.
“In addition, the Justice Department reviewed only a limited number of cases and focused on the work of one scientist at the FBI lab, despite warnings that problems were far more widespread and could affect potentially thousands of cases in federal, state and local courts. As a result, hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration, a retrial or a retesting of evidence using DNA because FBI hair and fiber experts may have misidentified them as suspects….
“…Overall, calls to defense lawyers indicate and records documented that prosecutors disclosed the reviews’ results to defendants in fewer than half of the 250-plus questioned cases.”
Combine this with well-documented studies and cases in other states that demonstrate a pattern of widespread prosecutorial misconduct that is rarely punished by state authorities, and the conclusions are inescapable, though solutions are elusive. English jurist William Blackstone believed that it was better to have ten guilty men go free than to imprison one innocent; Benjamin Franklin upped the ratio to 100 to 1. If America believes in the principle, what should its response be to the certainty that
- Thousands of innocent people are currently imprisoned?
- The procedures, scientific methods and in many cases, investigators and prosecutors who imprisoned them are unchanged, and thus,
- Many more innocent people will be imprisoned, and even executed, in the future?
Our current response: “Why are gas prices so high? Why didn’t they charge George Zimmerman? How dare they say that about Ann Romney? How about those Dodgers?” This national disgrace is a series of one-day stories that Angelina Jolie can knock out of the news with a single announcement. As for the Justice Department, it is fighting state efforts to make voters identify themselves, blocking initiatives designed to make it clear that illegal immigrants are not welcome, sucking up to Al Sharpton and taking the Fifth Amendment, among other things. The Post reports that the 2004 DOJ task force that uncovered the bad evidence was diligent and exhaustive in its efforts (Until the time came to let the railroaded prisoners know that their protestations of innocence had been validated.) Now what? Why is it left to the Post to reveal the extent of the problem? Why isn’t the extent of this systemic betrayal of core American ideals considered a national crisis? Yes, the deficit, yes, entitlements, yes, health care, yes, Iran, and immigration, yes terrorism, yes, women’s rights…but this is right at the top of what America is here for, isn’t it? Life and liberty. How dare we pursue happiness while fellow citizens are being deprived of these daily?
I’m an ethicist, but seldom has saying something is wrong seemed so inadequate.
This has to matter to us more.
You can read the results of the Posts’s investigation here.
You can read how bad the problem is here.
You can read about how fallible forensic evidence is here (And do you think the entertainment media’s round-the-clock portray of brilliant, technologically infallible, F.B.I and C.S.I sleuths might play a part in false convictions by star-struck juries? I sure do…) here.
You can read about just one of the tragedies resulting from a false conviction, and the failure of the DOJ to release its evidence, here.
Where will you find a leader with the power, focus, persuasiveness, courage and dedication to shake the public from its self-abortion and apathy and make the continuing imprisonment of innocent citizens the priority it must be in the supposed Land of the Free, and Home of the Brave?
I’m sorry. I have no answer.