Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wrongful Convictions: Justice Denied

The following editorial was published by the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch on June 22, 2012.

An innocent person wrongfully imprisoned is the stuff of Hollywood movies, real-life TV shows — and authoritarian regimes. It is also, tragically, the story of too many men in Virginia's prison system.

A new study — the most authoritative to date — based on DNA testing indicates that at least 8 percent, and perhaps as many as 15 percent, of persons convicted of sexual-assault crimes during the 15-year-period studied may be innocent. This is horrifying news.

It is horrifying on a number of levels. One is the grave injustice done to those who are branded sex offenders and consigned to a miserable life behind bars for years on end, though they have done nothing wrong. And though the prisoners' families are not locked up, they suffer right alongside them. Imagine having a father, son or brother consigned to barred hell through no fault of his own. (Those who say guests of the prison system have a soft and easy life are invited to try it for a few months and see for themselves.)

Wrongful imprisonment also compounds that injustice by letting the real perpetrator go free — perhaps to commit further heinous acts. From the perspective of deterrence and punishment, locking up the wrong person is even worse than leaving a case unsolved. At least in an unsolved case, the authorities know the perpetrator is still out there somewhere. With a wrongful conviction, they can rest easy in the false belief they have put him away.

What's more, wrongful conviction victimizes all over again those who have suffered sexual assault — who find themselves stripped of the comfort of knowing their attackers are behind bars. And finally, it diminishes public confidence in the criminal-justice system.

Police and prosecutors do their best. Many of them enter their professions precisely because they are motivated by a powerful thirst for justice and a felt duty to root out evil. But like everyone else on the planet, those who work in law enforcement fall short of perfection. The Urban Institute report on wrongful convictions shows the extent to which human shortcomings can combine to create systemic failure.

The report does not provide the final word. Much more scrutiny and analysis are in order. But the report should serve as a call to action for state lawmakers. It also should sound alarms elsewhere. Virginia's DNA testing project sets the commonwealth apart from and above the other 49 states, which have undertaken no such examination. Perhaps they should.


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