Monday, November 05, 2007

Guest Shot: New policies are needed to halt unjust convictions

by Katherine Ramsland

This opinion originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Nov. 4, 2007.

Katherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University

When the U.S. Supreme Court mandated the Miranda warning in 1966, it did so to protect the public against coerced self-incrimination. But some law-enforcement agencies resisted. They said that articulating those rights hampered their ability to get confessions and released more criminals on technicalities. In other words, if an arresting officer forgot the warning or failed to notice that the subject was not competent enough to waive protected rights, the case could be tossed.

Now we are seeing a host of new policy changes on the horizon. These changes will help minimize false convictions. And again, we see resistance from the very people who should care most about justice for all. It is almost as if the law-enforcement establishment believes it is more important to convict and then let the system sort it out. But those who believe this have not fully grasped the harm some current procedures have perpetrated on the innocent. Law enforcement should welcome - not reject - changes designed to protect.

The main problem is that many innocent people have been convicted. The number we know of is very large, and - given the problems discovered with formerly accepted legal procedures and certain types of evidence - it stands to reason that many more innocents are serving time or possibly have been executed.

Proposed changes in courts around the country directly address this issue. They include: improved procedures for the identification of suspects, including expanded use of DNA technologies; improved efforts to corroborate information given by informants or "snitches"; and higher standards for crime labs. Some long-enshrined procedures are now being reviewed with a newly critical eye. For example, research in psychology for more than a century has proven repeatedly that eyewitness testimony (a leading factor in false convictions) is fallible. Finally, officials are listening.

And yet there is still resistance in many law-enforcement circles.

Here are some sobering statistics from the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. Since 1989, this group has freed 208 men via postconviction DNA analysis on biological samples from their supposed crimes. Fifteen were on death row, facing execution for something they did not do. The average length of time served was 12 years, with many in prison for more than two decades. The total number of known years served by the innocent is a staggering 2,563. And these are just the statistics for the small percentage of cases in which biological evidence was involved (and testable), and for which the overburdened personnel at the Innocence Project had time. They currently have tens of thousands of letters in their files from inmates begging for help.

Here's just one example of how the system broke down. In Texas, Roy Criner received a prison term in 1990 of 99 years for the rape and killing of a teenage girl. Later, he submitted to DNA testing, and the results excluded him as the rapist. The Texas Court of Appeals, however, ruled this evidence would have made no difference to the conviction, so he remained in prison.

Then a local reporter found more evidence of Criner's innocence. A cigarette butt, previously discounted, was tested for DNA. The test result proved that the person who had smoked it had been the rapist-murderer - and that this person was not Criner. After serving 10 years for a crime he did not commit, he finally was set free.

"It breaks you down." Those are the words of one exonerated convict in the documentary movie After Innocence. It features cases such as that of Nick Yarris, who spent 22 years on Pennsylvania's death row for murder. Even after he was freed, he could not persuade the prosecutor to send the DNA profile that had exonerated him to a national database to assist in identifying the real killer.

It is almost as if law enforcement does not want to identify and exonerate the innocent. Eight states do not yet mandate giving inmates postconviction access to DNA analysis. Five states defeated bills intended to change policies on eyewitness identification. The California State Sheriff's Association opposes bills that require officials to record interrogations and corroborate informant information; the purported fear is that such procedures would create loopholes for defense attorneys to exploit. This organization also opposes new procedures for suspect lineups. Research has revealed that witnesses, when asked to pick from lineups, make comparisons among those lined up, which can alter their memory. Or they may simply choose the one who "looks" criminal. (The recent study by the Chicago police department that "proved" that current methods worked just fine was significantly flawed.)

Even if the system releases the innocent, it sometimes seems to wish to punish them somehow anyway. The conviction records of many exonerated individuals are not expunged, making it difficult for them to find employment and even a place to live. Their most productive work years are lost, and they can expect little or no assistance with integration back into the community. A few have received payouts from successful lawsuits, but most have nothing. Some say it was easier for them in prison.

It seems that some of our sworn protectors would rather protect themselves. Why else would they resist policy changes arising from verified harm? These system failures ought to disappoint law-enforcement personnel, as they did Gov. George Ryan in Illinois. Upon learning that 13 men on Illinois' death row had been exonerated, Ryan commuted the sentences of all death-row inmates because he recognized that changes were needed.

The English jurist William Blackstone famously said: "Better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." Apparently that's literary fluff to some people. They should talk to exonerated convicts. Of course, we should expect collateral damage within any human institution, but if we have identified ways to reduce it, we should utilize them. It is shocking that officials entrusted with public safety would worry more about technical slip-ups that might free a guilty person than about errors that repeatedly have victimized the innocent.


Dave said...

I'm all for these kinds of policy changes. Unfortunately, I think prosecutors are playing a large part in the conviction of innocent people. Nifong is not a "rogue prosecutor" he's typical. I've seen prosecutors lie to the grand jury, present false evidence to a jury and suborn perjury. It's sick and sad that our criminal justice [sic] system has come to this.

More prosecutors have to go down for what they are doing. The problem is that they are so powerful and have little or no oversight.

How about this: When a prosecutor is proven to have knowingly sent someone to prison by cheating, he gets charged with kidnapping, which is what it really is.

Truth in Justice Files said...

Good thought, Dave.

And when a prosecutor cheats to knowingly send an innocent person to Death Row, he should be charged with murder.

Floridians for Criminal Justice Reform (FCJR) said...

Very well said.

Prosecutors are more interested in a WIN than in justice. They are rewarded for the number of convictions, not the quality of those convictions. And if a police officer has a "gut feeling" that this particular person is guilty, then they make the evidence fit the person they "believe" committed the crime.

We are the largest jailer in the WORLD. In absolute numbers and per-capita, thanks to our "tough" (insane) laws surrounding drug offenses. We are handing out sentences fit for a murderer to someone possessing as little as 32 pain pills!

Florida MAN MIN laws state that 28 grams or more of oxycodone or hydrocodone, or any mixture thereof, gets a MAN MIN of 25 years in prison, a $500,000 fine, and a conviction for felony drug trafficking! It is weight-based proof of intent to sell is required!

No lawmaker wants to touch the MAN MIN drug laws for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."

Meanwhile, our prisons are straining under the weight of 2.2 million incarcerated. At least 50% of that population are non-violent low-level drug offenders.

Billions of wasted dollars. Millions of wasted lives and devastated families.

The amount of drugs a person must possess to trigger a prison sentence is very small. And worse yet, that sentence is so far out of line with the "crime" the person committed.

Can anyone tell me it is JUSTICE to send a person to prison for 25 years for possessing 32 pain pills?


When are the lawmakers going to deal with the area of criminal justice reform, from A to Z, and fix this broken, sick and twisted system? In my lifetime, I hope.

Chrystal Weaver
Fort Lauderdale, FL

Floridians for Criminal Justice Reform said...

That is why the MAN MIN laws are flawed. They take away ALL discretion from the Judge and place it in the hands of the prosecutor, who has a motive to WIN! And they have the power to make plea deals behind closed doors outside the public eye.

A judge's sentencing policies are more visable to the public than the deals made behind the prosecutors' closed doors.

Judges should have the ability to determined the sentence based on the nature of the crime! Better yet, the jury that found the person guilty should be able to determine if and for how long the person should go to prison.

Now, the jury cannot KNOW the sentence a person is facing. The jurors in the RICHARD PAEY case found him guilty and they thought to themselves - awww, he will probably get a year. He was facing the 25 year MAN MIN.

BTW: Gov Crist gave PAEY a full pardon in Sept 2007 after he spent almost 4 years in prison.

Richard Paey has gotten lots of media attention - just Google his name. He is a chronic pain patient in a wheelchair with multiple failed back surgeries and MS.

Lastly, who do you think is going to get the better plea deal when a person is facing a very long MAN MIN and they HAVE to take a plea?? That long MAN MIN makes for one very powerful hammer!!!

(Assuming both have no priors)

A) Johnny White Boy from a nice middle class family or

B) Tyrone Black Boy from the poor side of town?

Chrystal Weaver
Fort Lauderdale, FL

Beth said...

I often wonder if prosecutors work on commission based on the number of "convictions" they win.This wonderful country of ours has no justice system, just a court system!!!