October 15, 2009
A tardy exoneration
The exoneration of Edwin Chandler, who served nine years in prison for a Louisville homicide 16 years ago that he did not commit, may be an instance of justice ultimately prevailing. But it is not affirmation that the legal system worked as it should or that it has overcome inherent shortcomings.
Indeed, Mr. Chandler should never have been convicted, or probably even prosecuted. The physical evidence — fingerprints on a bottle of beer, and ownership of a knit cap and sunglasses — could not be matched to him. A man who had been pumping gasoline outside the convenience store where a clerk was shot and killed insisted that Mr. Chandler was not the perpetrator, but police largely ignored him, and he was not called to testify at trial. The police interrogator assumed from the outset that Mr. Chandler was guilty. Mr. Chandler said police used scare tactics to coerce a false confession.
The wrongful prison sentence stripped years from Mr. Chandler's life that can never be returned. It also forces the shooting victim's family to relive a nightmare that should have been closed years ago. But the biggest tragedy is that cases such as this are not a rarity in the United States.
The Innocence Project, whose Kentucky branch handled the Chandler case, says on its Web site that there have been 244 post-conviction exonerations since the venture was begun in 1992 in affiliation with Yeshiva University. Mr. Chandler's conviction seems typical of the miscarriages of justice that the project addresses. Seventy percent of the wrongfully convicted defendants are racial minorities (Mr. Chandler is black), for example, and 40 percent of the cases result in the real perpetrator being identified (a repeat offender has been indicted for the Louisville murder).
In the face of such statistics, it is appalling that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that inmates in the six states that do not allow post-conviction access to DNA evidence cannot use federal civil rights laws to obtain advanced DNA testing. (The Chandler case was rectified based on fingerprints, but DNA produces most post-conviction reversals.)
The justice system is charged with getting things right — for the benefit of victims, defendants and society. The courts must recognize that this doesn't always happen, and do whatever it can, whenever it can, to prevent or reverse life-altering errors.