Democrats & Liberals Archives

Innocence Shouldn't Be Partisan

Innocent people shouldn’t be imprisoned.

Well, duh! That statement on its face will draw agreement across the entire political spectrum. But most folks in the prosecuting business don’t seem to agree, when it means releasing prisoners their office successfully convicted. Newly elected Dallas, Texas district attorney Craig Watkins gets kudos for allowing common sense to trump possible embarrassment.

We've all heard the maxim "better 10 guilty men go free than 1 innocent man be convicted." Some have stretched 10 to 100, and what the best number is can be honestly debated or discussed. The constraints put on law enforcement and prosecutors in gaining convictions, when fairly observed, do lessen the likelihood of punishing the innocent in many jurisdictions across the U.S. when compared to earlier times or other countries not sharing our presumption of innocence for the accused.

But once convicted, the shoe is clearly on the other foot.

Even prior to conviction the pressure to solve crimes too often leads police and prosecutors to seek convictions with too much zeal when the guilt of the accused is far from certain. Common sense tells me that zealotry will be manifest in some jurisdictions with a troubling regularity, and that where that is the case district attorneys will resist tooth and nail any attempt to exonerate the convicted.

Of course we want crimes to be solved and the guilty to be caught. We want police and prosecutors to work hard at their jobs to bring justice to criminals. But a crime is better unsolved than solved incorrectly. The attitude of "somebody's gotta pay" too easily transmutes into "anybody's gotta pay".

Enter Craig Watkins.

Actually first came DNA fingerprinting, then came the Innocence Project.

Everyone except the guilty ought to be happy about advances in DNA testing and its use in criminology. Barring tampering with evidence, the likelihood of identifying perpetrators correctly in serious crimes has gone up many fold since the days of my youth. Those behind bars for years who have steadfastly maintained their innocence now have new hope of exoneration. That along with the dogged determination of the Innocence Project founded in 1992 to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. District Attorneys haven't exactly been champing at the bit to provide evidence to the Innocence Project to assure that any their office has wrongly convicted are exonerated. Many jurisdictions destroy evidence after some length of time, while a few dishonest ones no doubt destroyed lots of evidence once they became aware of an interest in reinvestigating claims of false convictions. As stated on IP's website:

Most law enforcement officers and prosecutors are honest and trustworthy. But criminal justice is a human endeavor and the possibility for corruption exists. Even if one officer of every thousand is dishonest, wrongful convictions will continue to occur.
Even honest DAs often aren't anxious to learn that even one of the defendants that they worked so hard to convict might be exonerated after a lengthy prison sentence. That may be why it took the election of an outsider to the DA's office in Dallas to finally produce a DA who will partner with the Innocence Project of Texas to review the cases of 354 inmates who have requested DNA testing.
Watkins, who has seen two men exonerated by DNA since taking office Jan. 1, describes his decision as a no-brainer.

"We had to make this move," Watkins said Friday. "We're going to do things right in Dallas County and right some wrongs that have been done in the past."

DNA evidence has exonerated 12 Dallas County men since 2001, which is more than all but two states, according to the Innocence Project.

A 13th man, James Giles, is expected to be exonerated within the next few weeks, Watkins said.

Thirty-four Dallas County inmates have received DNA testing since being convicted. Eleven saw their guilt confirmed and six are still going through the testing process. In five cases, the DNA testing was inconclusive, according to the district attorney's office.

Dallas County has been the site of an inordinate number of exonerations in part because the laboratory prosecutors use holds onto biological evidence for up to 25 years, said Jeff Blackburn, director of the Innocence Project of Texas.

Other labs across the state often destroy samples after convictions, he said.

Innocence Project lawyers and staffers will work with law students at Texas Wesleyan, Texas Tech, North Texas, University of Texas at Arlington and Southern Methodist to identify the most likely candidates for exonerations.

No tax money will be used to pay for testing, Watkins said.

This observer sees the potential for seismic repercussions across the country with greater scrutiny of prosecutors who have overseen multiple false convictions. Where there are a few there are likely to be many more. I'm certain Dallas County isn't the worse case, though the exoneration of 13 out of 35 hints strongly of either police or prosecutorial misconduct or both there.

The Innocence Project keeps a track record for many states based on previous exonerations and current state laws on compensation for exonorees, DNA access, and the recording of interrogations. You can click the map here for your state or state of interest.

As my title implies, this issue shouldn't be partisan, and in large measure probably isn't. I've seen illogic emanate from "tough on crime" candidates from both sides of the aisle, and reminders of the importance of due process from both as well. Still I think it telling that Watkins came in on a Democratic sweep.

Posted by Walker Willingham at February 26, 2007 1:33 AM
Comments
Comment #209715

Walker-
Very good post. You are right, this is not a partisan issue, it’s a justice isssue. No ethical, professional prosecutor or law enforcement officer should have any objections to finding the truth, even in cases that have been through the courts.

Advances in DNA testing etc should give the police and prosecutors a much better shot at finding the guilty than ever before. Unfortunately, there are still those who latch on to the most obvious suspect and manipulate the evidence and ignore other possibilities.

So long as this happens, groups like the Innocence Project will be needed. And, I will support them as long as they also stay neutral and nonpartisan.

Posted by: John Back at February 26, 2007 6:34 AM
Comment #209717

We should use the best techniques to find the guilty and protect the innocent. An innocent person in jail means a guily one is out on the street or at least not in jail for that crime.

The bureaucratic urge is to protect their turf. It is good when they are held accountable.

When DNA is conclusive, as in the recent Duke rape case, we certainly should act accordingly. The Duke case shows very well why DAs often hold onto bad cases and how it is very hard to get them to let go.

On the other side, most guilty people claim to be innocent. If DNA exonerates, by all means we should use it to free the innocent. But we should not use new technologies as one more way to drag out proceedings and create new openings for abuse. I think that is what some DAs legitimately worry about.

I think of the case where two people have committed a crime together, for example. You find two sets of DNA, or maybe there is just other DNA present in general. The guy in jail could claim that you do not have the “real killer”

Posted by: Jack at February 26, 2007 10:08 AM
Comment #209758

Given that the Dallas justice system came to near collapse after several problems with evidence processing and phoney police testimony, I think the D.A.’s position was a given.

Houston and Texas DPS (State police) has also had similar problems. Texas has a reputation for being short on justice and long on good ole boy politics. Now Houston and Dallas are having to answer questions about why so many prisoners die in their county jails. The answer is easy. Texas does not believe prisoners deserve healthcare. No one is held accountable. The county Judges know what the problem is, they just continue to ignore it.

Texas has a long way to go before justice has much meaning. If you’re poor and a minority in Texas you just might die in jail before it does.


Posted by: gergle at February 26, 2007 4:44 PM
Comment #209759

Just checked the link for Georgia and found that so far six people have been exonerated of the crimes they were convicted of. I also noticed that in every case the witness misidentified the defendant. If this was because the police mislead the victim or not isn’t mentioned. But in all six cases DNA either wasn’t developed at the time at the crime or wasn’t as reliable as it is today.
I believe that with the vast improvements in DNA testing that it would take a crooked prosecutor like the one up in Durham, NC to get a conviction of an innocent person. Even then it Duke case shows it’s gonna be very hard to do.

Posted by: Ron Brown at February 26, 2007 4:47 PM
Comment #209772

There was a very intersting book called “Witness for the Defense” by Elizabeth Lofton. She talks about how memory is not like a recorder, but is interactive. Many cases of eye witness are wrong. This is especially true in very stressful cases such as rape. We should be very careful about convictions based only on eye witness evidence.

Posted by: Jack at February 26, 2007 5:58 PM
Comment #209800

I looked at the websites information on Massachusetts. 9 people have had their innocence vindicated. I’m glad we don’t have a death penalty here, or else some of these people may not be here today.

Ron, I noticed the same trend in Massachusetts, most of the convictions occurred before 1990 and were caused by either accidental or intentional misidentification by witnesses or a zealous prosecutor who proceeded with less than ample evidence and was still able to convince a jury to convict.

Posted by: Warren P at February 26, 2007 11:45 PM
Comment #209802

Warren,

Having been selected on a jury every 3 years for longer than I care to admit in Mass, I can support your statement. The jury knows of the case only what it is told of in the trial. Bad lawyers (I’ve seen a few bad defense atty’s) = (potentialy) bad verdicts.

Posted by: Dave1-20-2009 at February 26, 2007 11:59 PM
Comment #209854

It’s surprising what they can get DNA from. It’s kinda scary to think that you could spit on the ground and years later some lab tech might be able to get your DNA from it. Don’t know if they can do that just yet but if DNA keeps advancing at the rate it is it just might be possible.
But with the very small amounts needed today and everything they can extract DNA from it’s getting harder for criminals avoid conviction. And hopefully even harder for DAs to convict the innocent.

Posted by: Ron Brown at February 27, 2007 12:02 PM
Comment #209894

It was while living in Texas in the 1980s that I developed my anti-death penalty views. It’s not that some people don’t deserve the death penalty — obviously some do. But after following for years stories about corrupt DAs suppressing evidence in their zeal to convict and secure the death penalty, I found it impossible to believe that all death row inmates were guilty of the crimes they were accused of. And there is no appeal after death.

On this issue, Texas, my home state, is the shame of the nation.

Posted by: Trent at February 27, 2007 8:53 PM
Comment #210155

Trent,

I’m with you on the death penalty. I came to my decision based more on philosophical grounds that the government as an extension of me should not be killing people as punishment.

I remember the morning that Ted Bundy was executed, I was on my way to practice at 4:00am, right after the execution occured. The local radio station (and I’m sure half the country) was playing “Shock the Monkey”. Such callous disregard for human life is not something I can support.

As you said, the trick with being anti-death penalty is that you have to be against it all the time. It’s at times a hard stance to square in the face of reality (McVeigh for example); however, protecting the monsters from us is what protects us from ourselves in the end.

(All this from a conservative mind you).

Posted by: Rob at March 2, 2007 12:15 AM
Comment #380568

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