I imagine in the current news environment, that headline makes you think of the Casey Anthony trial or maybe O.J. Simpson, Robert Durst or Mary Winkler. That side of the equation makes one think of a perpetrator going free, feeling invincible and ready to victimize again–all because the jury bought into dubious claims of self-defense or false or exaggerated tales of abuse.
For this to happen, someone is usually sacrificed on the public altar to vindicate the perpetrator. For example, take George Anthony. For the rest of his life, some people will believe or suspect him of wrong-doing, Some bells just can’t be unrung. It’s an ugly, frustrating miscarriage of justice.
However, an even worse situation exists when a jury awards a guilty verdict to an innocent person. In a wrongful conviction, a person’s life is ruined–permanently. First by the trauma of incarceration for a crime the person never committed, then by a taint that can never be totally erased even if the exonoree is found not guilty in a second trial and receives a certificate of actual innocence from the state.
This thwarted justice happens more than we would like to believe. Look at Dallas County alone: District Attorney Craig Watkins created the Conviction Integrity Unit in 2007 in cooperation with the Texas Innocence Project. Through DNA testing alone, more than twenty wrongfully convicted people have been set free–most of them men in murder and rape cases. The unit has expanded its scope to cases where genetic evidence is not available, a more common situation for women imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. Now both Houston and New York City are establishing similar divisions to examine cases in their areas.
More suffer than just the wrongfully convicted in these cases. Families and friends have their lives and hearts torn apart. They spend years of their lives in an essential obsession with the case that put an innocent loved one behind bars. Scraping together money, uttering ceaseless prayers, pleading with anyone–and everyone–to help the person behind bars for a crime committed by someone else.
The price to all of us as a society? Of course, there are the financial expenses of re-opening any case. Worse than that, though, is the thought that the person who committed a heinous crime is walking about, laughing up his sleeve, confident in his ability to commit a similar crime, again and again–an emboldened criminal ready to victimize anyone he encounters.
In a wrongful conviction, we often see prosecutors who have overstepped the mark or lost sight of their mission to seek truth and find justice. In wrongful acquittals, we often encounter defense attorneys willing to sling unsubstantiated smears maligning the character of the victim or of any person who appears to be a good target.
We have laws governing the behaviour of prosecutors but sometimes they are adept at hiding their duplicities and violations. We must have more not less transparency from the state’s attorneys. More documents need to be made public. Florida actually does a better job of this than most states.
Defense attorneys, however, seem relatively ungoverned in their courtroom behavior. They do need to do their best to raise the questions that lead to unreasonable doubt. But does that mean they should be able to destroy the lives of others with impunity in their desire to defend their client? One would think legal ethics would stop them in their tracks but many of them appear oblivious.
We need our courts to be a place that reveals truth–not a shield to protect wrongdoing and reckless allegations. Something must be done to hold the attorneys accountable. You can’t expect juries to get the verdict right unless we do.