Psychologists tell us that cognitive dissonance occurs when we have two ideas that are irreconcilably opposed – ideas such as "the defendant is guilty" and "DNA shows the defendant is innocent." We want to believe we are honorable, competent people. Cognitive dissonance causes mental anguish because it suggests we are neither honorable nor competent. This, say the experts, is the most powerful cause of denial and self-justification, which prompt us to dig in our heels and justify our original position in the face of strong, even crushing evidence that we are wrong.
Nowhere is denial and justification seen as often as in the criminal justice system which, in turn, is the single greatest barrier to reforming the criminal justice system. When Roy Criner was excluded by DNA three times, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller claimed Criner must have used a condom, and said that the young girl who was raped and killed was promiscuous, in direct contradiction of all evidence in the case. Earl Washington was similarly excluded three times by DNA in a rape and murder in Virginia, yet a series of Virginia Attorneys General continued to claim he was "not innocent." This disingenuous ploy leads to only one conclusion: Earl Washington must have raped the victim with another man’s sperm.
We have recently been treated–for lack of a better term–to denial and self-justification by prosecutors in three wrongful conviction cases in widely separated parts of the country.
In Buffalo, NY, Erie County DA Frank J. Clark is opposing a new trial for Lynn DeJac, who was convicted of strangling her 13-year-old daughter Crystallynn fourteen years ago. Clark maintains that DeJac is guilty, despite the fact that Dennis Donohue–the man DeJac has said all along killed her child–has been arrested for two similar stranglings, and his DNA was found in blood spots on the bed and wall in the child’s bedroom and in vaginal swabs taken from her body. When three Buffalo detectives publicly stated they believe DeJac is innocent, Clark was incensed. "It’s absolutely inappropriate for them to express an opinion on the issue of guilt or innocence," Clark fumed. Clark says there is no way to know when Donohue’s semen got inside Crystallynn. He implies that there was a consensual sexual relationship between Donohue and Crystallynn, and that there’s nothing unusual or wrong about that.
Half a continent away, in Lansing, MI, Ingham County prosecutor Stuart Dunnings, III joined Claude McCollum’s defense attorney, Hugh Clarke, Jr., in asking that McCollum’s rape and murder conviction be set aside when a serial killer, Matthew Macon, confessed to the crime McCollum was convicted of committing. So far, so good. But this prompted a closer look at the prosecution of McCollum: his "confession" was not a confession, he was excluded by DNA but tried anyway, and the prosecution withheld evidence that proved McCollum was in another location when the crime occurred. Dunning deflected questions about his ethics and an investigation by the Michigan Attorney General by pointing his finger in every direction but his own. McCollum’s defense attorney should have been able to figure out that the video showing McCollum was in a different building on the campus of Lansing Community College when Prof. Kronenberg was killed in her classroom was recorded at the same time the murder occurred. The presiding judge could have dismissed the charge instead of sending it to the jury. Dunning even wrote an op-ed piece published in the Lansing State Journal on October 27, 2007 blaming everyone but himself, and ignoring the fact that Dunning pursued McCollum’s prosecution even though he knew all of the facts concealed from defense counsel and the judge.
In Big Sky Country, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath and Yellowstone County officials have borrowed a page from Virginia’s playbook. In 2002, when Jimmy Bromgard was cleared by DNA of the rape of an 8-year-old girl in her Billings, MT home, McGrath admitted the state had imprisoned an innocent man. In 2005, Bromgard filed a lawsuit against Montana, Yellowstone County and others, alleging his civil rights had been violated. Pivoting 180 degrees on a dime, McGrath now propounds scenarios to explain who might have left the semen (including the child’s father) while keeping Bromgard in the loop as "not innocent." Yellowstone County has yet another theory to keep Bromgard in the "not innocent" category. Acknowledging that Bromgard is innocent of raping the child, the County now suggests he burglarized the girl’s home the night of the assault.
So are these folks all suffering from cognitive dissonance? Are they honorable, competent men struggling to make sense of the terrible mistakes they made, trying to do the right thing long after they did the wrong thing?
No. Not one of them. Their motives are crass and self-serving. Their actions are despicable, and fit the definition of obstruction of justice: interference, through words or actions, with the proper operations of a court or officers of the court. Let’s take a closer look at each of these nay-sayers to see what motivates them.
In Buffalo, NY, David Clark insists that, even with the new DNA evidence and the similarities between the murder of Lynn DeJac’s daughter and two other women killed by Dennis Donohue, there is not enough evidence to get Donohue indicted. The truth is, Donohue can’t be prosecuted for Crystallynn’s murder because Clark gave him complete immunity in exchange for his testimony against DeJac at her trial. When it sinks in with the voters of Erie County, NY that the DA made sure there can never be justice for a child who was brutally raped and killed in her own bed, one would hope that Clark will be turned out of office.
So far, Ingham County, MI residents have only demanded to know why Stuart Dunnings, III took the prosecution of Claude McCollum forward knowing–as he demonstrably did–that McCollum was excluded by DNA and that he was nowhere near the crime scene when it happened. Remember, it was the confession of Matthew Macon to the murder of Prof. Kronenberg that led, rapidly, to the disintegration of the case against McCollum. Macon is a serial killer. During the time McCollum was being prosecuted and then began serving a life sentence for someone else’s crime, Macon killed five more people. Dunnings is in denial because sooner or later, the people of Ingham County will start asking how many of those five people would not have been murdered if Dunnings had not fostered a false sense of security by prosecuting McCollum.
The impetus for Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath’s about-face is money. It’s one thing to acknowledge the obvious, that an innocent man spent 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, but it’s quite another to compensate him. Bromgard went to prison when he was 18 years old. For nearly half his life, he was a target for other inmates who wanted to beat up a child molester. Bromgard had a terrible, terrible time. While other young men his age went to college, got married and had careers, Bromgard was cutting license plates. No amount of money can repay him for the years stolen by his wrongful conviction. But McGrath–on behalf of the State of Montana–doesn’t want to give Bromgard any money. So he grasps at irrational straws to keep Jimmy Bromgard in the "not innocent" loop. And he tries to do it on the hush-hush. After the Chicago Tribune published McGrath’s "not innocent" theories given at deposition, lawyers for the state asked the court to seal all case documents and issue a gag order to squelch the bad publicity. The court refused those requests and the case remains open to the public. That means the people of Montana can see what their AG is up to, and they can act accordingly.
Clark, Dunnings and McGrath are not honorable men struggling to come to grips with the terrible consequences of a legal system that can and does crush the innocent. They have betrayed the trust placed in them, and they should be held accountable by the people they are supposed to be serving.