This editorial was originally published by the Charlotte (NC) News-Observer on September 27, 2008.
Free to go
Wrongful convictions are a blight on North Carolina's courts, even if there's rejoicing when an innocent man is freed
So was that a triumph of justice in a Durham courtroom the other day? Perhaps so -- but a triumph that occurred only because for seven long years prior to Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson's bombshell ruling, justice was dragged through the mud.
Erick Daniels in 2001 had been sent to prison -- adult prison! -- at age 15, convicted of a home invasion armed robbery. And as far as the Durham district attorney's office was concerned, that was the end of it. Even when Daniels' attorney went to prosecutors with a report that another man had confessed to the crimes, nothing happened.
Finally, however, another attorney, Carlos Mahoney, persuaded Hudson to hear Daniels' request for a new trial. What resulted was both exhilarating and shocking -- exhilarating because Daniels' conviction was thrown out on the spot, and shocking because of the judge's withering criticism of the travesty that had put the youth in prison.
Identification procedures had been shaky. There had been no physical evidence tying Daniels to the crime, no testimony to corroborate the charges. The defendant's trial attorney later acknowledged that he had done an inferior job.
Perhaps most troubling was prosecutors' failure to follow through when told that someone else -- a federal prison inmate who matched the victim's description of the suspect -- had confessed. The impression left by such lack of initiative is that for some authorities in Durham, once a conviction is obtained, there's no further obligation to make sure justice is done.
Hudson framed that concern: "People are starting to question, in Durham, the degree to which the prosecutor's office and the police department are tracking down cases when there are leads that other people have committed the crime." Unfortunately, the judge wasn't referring only to Daniels' case. Just recently, when armed robbery charges were dismissed against a man who had waited five years for trial, the Court of Appeals noted strong evidence of another man's guilt.
There have been too many instances in recent years, by no means only in Durham, of North Carolina courts rendering judgments that turn out to be demonstrably flawed. People have been sent to prison for crimes they didn't commit, and even have been placed at risk of execution.
Causes range from court systems struggling with a lack of resources to prosecutors who are too focused on the courtroom contest at the expense of getting things right. But the effects, besides the cruel unfairness of wrongful conviction, are also to let the guilty go free and to shake public trust in the judicial system.
Hudson could have directed that Daniels be retried. But he concluded that the evidence was too weak to sustain the charges. When a judge decides that there's no reasonable chance a jury would convict someone who already has been in prison for seven years, the system has badly malfunctioned. Or, when the person is set free to try to pick up the pieces of his life, an appalling mistake has finally been corrected.