After Archie Williams (above) was released from a federal penitentiary last week after serving 36 years not only for a crime he didn’t commit, but after a false conviction that would have been prevented by decisive exculpatory evidence that was available to the prosecution from the beginning. The district attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish, Hillar C. Moore III, said in court, “As a representative of the state, I apologize.”
I’m sure that makes Williams feel all warm inside. As we discussed here just this month in another case of wrongful arrest, trial and imprisonment, the kind of life-destroying mistakes that send citizens to prison for crimes they didn’t commit must involve accountability for those responsible beyond mere financial damages paid by the State.
This case is especially infuriating. It was known at the trial, and admitted by the prosecution, that fingerprints found at the scene where a woman had been raped and stabbed in in Baton Rouge, La. belonged to someone other than the man standing trial for the crime. Under basic prosecutorial ethics, Williams shouldn’t have been charged. The prints guaranteed reasonable doubt. An ethical prosecutor is not supposed to decide, “Well, maybe we can convince the jury to ignore those prints.” Prosecutors aren’t supposed to fool juries. Ethical prosecution demanded that the State acknowledge doubt, no matter how much it wanted to clear the case, The victim of the attack was the wife of a wealthy and powerful man.
Instead, the prosecutor at the trial trivialized the significance of the then-unidentified fingerprints found at the scene. “How many people come through your house?” Jeff Hollingsworth asked the jury, after suggesting that the prints could have belonged to a plumber or a carpenter, “The air-conditioning man, people who clean your carpets, the little girl home from school.”
Then it was the duty of the police to determine who those people were, match the prints, and determine that they didn’t commit the crime. Without that due diligence, there is doubt as a matter of reason as well as ethics.
Technicians in a crime lab eventually ran the fingerprints through a national database, and within hours there was a match with a serial rapist. That happened last week, however, almost four decades after the prints should have been identified. When Williams requested that the fingerprints be run against the national database in 1999, prosecutors opposed his request and no statute required them to comply…just fairness and an interest in justice.
The fingerprints weren’t the only reason the jury should have acquitted Williams. Although the victim was certain that he was her attacker, several aspects of her description of the rapist didn’t match Williams. His lawyer at the trial, Kathleen S. Richey, accurately told the jury that the victim had described a taller man with a scar on his shoulder blade. Williams did not; he had a scar on his upper arm.
The jury found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt anyway. He was 22 when police arrested him. Archie is Williams is 58 today.
It was dawning on criminologists by 1983 that eye witness testimony was less reliable than previously thought, and that identification could be negligently or intentionally be manipulated by police. Combined with the mysterious fingerprints, the shaky ID should have assured Williams’ acquittal. Juries, however, don’t know the law, don’t have experience evaluating evidence, and sometimes, as Reginald Rose pointed out in “Twelve Angry Men,” just want to get home, are misled by their biases, or just aren’t very bright.
I hesitate to call for some kind of sanctions or penalties when a jury botches its job like this; after all, the police screwed up, the prosecution was unethical, the judge let it all happen, and they were doing jobs that they had been trained to do. Nonetheless, it seems like some consequences of a bad verdict might focus jurors attention a bit more, to the benefit of justice. What those consequences might be, I have no idea.
I would support a law mandating the resignation and permanent bar from further prosecuting duties any prosecutor involved in sending an innocent man to prison, however.
It’s fascinating that such a case should come to public attention at the same time that activists, feminists and progressives are arguing that the presumption of innocence for men accused of sex crimes should be reduced. Archie Williams graphically shows where that position leads.