Nothing, and I do mean nothing infuriates me more that wrongful convictions. Whether we’re talking about false allegations of child abuse, murder, or rape, innocent people are being locked away for years — sometimes decades — for crimes they did not commit. Families are severed, lives are destroyed, and people are being hung out to dry by the very system that was supposed to protect them. There can be no greater injustice than that.
While the American code of justice demands that the accused be considered innocent unless (or “until”) proven guilty (the presumption of innocence is inherently flawed, but I’ll leave that alone for now), criminal cases involving children and/or highly sensitive issues (such as sexual assault) become so emotionally charged that it is virtually impossible for the accused to receive a fair trial. As I’ve said before, moral outrage interferes with justice. And crimes against women and children never fail to evoke a powerful emotional response which threatens to overshadow all evidence and objectivity. Feelings are substituted for facts, and the burden of proof shifts away from the Prosecution and onto the Defense. Justice is sacrificed for the sake of vengeance. In a nutshell, if the crime of which someone is accused involves children and/or rape, they are virtually guaranteed to be denied their right to fair trial.
Yes, I would rather see ten possible baby rapists go free than a single innocent person convicted.
The question is, who should ultimately be held liable for wrongful convictions? I think the answer to that is quite obvious: whichever parties were responsible for the miscarriage of justice.
A Virginia man spent 27 years behind bars for multiple rapes he did not commit. These convictions were based solely on eye-witness testimony — that of his alleged victims. It all began when a woman who claimed to have been raped days before spotted him at a grocery store and alerted police that she recognized her assailant. Police brought him in, and he was soon “identified” as the attacker of four other women. (Another of his alleged victims realized she was mistaken after the conviction.) Now, by no means am I suggesting that rape victims ought to bear the burden of proving their own cases in a court of law, but given the horrific consequences of false rape accusations, they do bear the responsibility of being certain whom they are accusing. Also, as The Forensic Examiner points out, “Although it may not be ‘politically correct’ to question the veracity of a women’s complaint of rape, failing to consider the accuser may be intentionally lying effectively eradicates the presumption of innocence.” In this case, the witnesses are clearly responsible — along with the juries which convicted him on the basis of their testimony. What it ultimately came down to was Mr. Haynesworth’s word against each of theirs, and the juries chose to convict an 18-year-old black man on the legal basis of he-said-she-said. Unfortunately, you cannot actually sue a jury, and I’m going to assume that it’s faux pas to sue a rape victim, because it appears this gentleman has yet to file any litigation. (Instead, he settled for a mail-room job from Cuccinelli .)
Just last year, Alton Logan ended up settling with the Chicago Police Department for $10.2 million after having spent 26 years behind bars for a murder. While it’s difficult to put a monetary value on half a life spent behind bars, I’d say Logan’s lawsuit was appropriate, considering the Chicago Police had concealed evidence which would have exonerated him. But far more reprehensible was the conduct of defense attorneys Dale Coventry and Jamie Kunz, who knew their client was the real murderer, yet kept this knowledge a secret for 26 years. Why, then, were they not also sued? Because they were “legally bound” to do so.
More and more cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome are being re-opened as the integrity of this “condition” is called into question. (One blogger has liken this “legal diagnosis” to the Satantic daycare sex-abuse scandal mentioned above.) It’s a valid comparison, really — in both cases, convictions have been based on dubious medical evidence from poorly qualified professionals, as well as on the moral outrage of the jury. And whatever happened to the “reasonable doubt” clause? When key witnesses are discredited, diagnoses are questioned, and medical professionals are called to testify outside their area of expertise, you have to wonder whether the jury fully grasps its own purpose. In wrongful convictions of Shaken Baby Syndrome, as with the ritual Satanic abuse case, I would hold the juries squarely at fault. But again, you cannot actually sue a jury.
Look, I get that there are reasons for judicial immunity. It protects both judges and juries from harassment by way of frivolous lawsuit and is intended to keep them objective in their rulings. At the same time, however, judicial immunity protects them from being held accountable for the ill consequences of their decisions. When a practice designed to promote objectivity is having the opposite effect, the question of, “Why are we still doing this?” must necessarily be raised.
It’s one thing for circuit judges to be protected by judicial immunity; as professional jurors, they are held accountable by other measures, such re-election or the potential for impeachment and removal from office. Juries, on the other hand, enjoy their immunity without any of these safeguards in place. True, they are only there to serve for a single trial, but if anything, I would expect this to make them even more flippant in their decisions. Compared to judges, juries demonstrate far less foresight and concern over the consequences of their verdicts — and what they might mean for the defendant. At the end of the day, they’ll go home to their crockpots and ESPN, while the defendant rots in prison for the rest of his life for a crime he appears to have committed. (The judge, at least, is back on the bench by Monday morning.)
Am I rallying against the use of juries in our judicial system? HELL, no — I’m rallying against irresponsible jurors.
I stand in favor of abolishing judicial immunity for both juries and judges in cases of wrongful conviction — but with some limitations. Obviously, the “wrongfulness” would first need to be established and the conviction reversed (I mean, how many people in prison are claiming to be innocent?) and another hearing would have to be held (hopefully at the bench!) to determine whether in fact the jury and/or judge were liable, and if so, by what degree. Then, and only then, would this open them up to civil litigation and/or penalties.
I also want there to be stiffer penalties for false accusation. When you have women like Crystal Magum being spared charges of filing a false police report, perjury, and obstruction of justice, what kind of message does this send out to would-be accusers?
There also needs to be better accountability for the individual investigators and their superiors. While I like to think that police corruption is a statistical rarity, it does happen, and not enough appropriate measures (emphasis on ‘appropriate’) are taken. For instance, it took the city of Chicago nearly thirty years and $56.25 million to finally do something about former police commander Jon Burge.
Convictions based on expert or medical testimony (such as Shaken Baby Syndrome or rape/molestation claims) need to re-examine both the source of the evidence (e.g., a doctor’s credentials and credibility), as well as the integrity of the evidence itself. Has the doctor who examined the child been trained in pediatrics? Did the emergency room doctor fully explain “Shaken Baby Syndrome” to the jury or even consider alternative diagnoses? Is he accustomed to establishing other modi operandi besides SBS?
Now obviously, this isn’t a one-stop, cure-all solution to preventing any new wrongful convictions, nor does this offer sufficient recompense to those who have suffered wrongful imprisonment. (How can that be compensated?) But it does provide a starting point for judicial improvement. Ultimately though, what it comes down to is better accountability within the justice system. Because even in light of the vast improvements in forensics and genetic technology, it is left to the police to collect the evidence, the DA to make the case, and the judge and jury to determine the defendant’s future. Objectivity must be paramount, a guilty verdict should not be presumed, and someone needs to be watching the Watchmen.