Wrongful convictions happen every week in every state in this country. And they happen for all the same reasons. So says renowned author John Grisham, who is also a lawyer, and whose book The Innocent Man is a must read.
My mind is back on wrongful convictions today since watching the 11 o’clock news last night, which featured a mini-documentary produced by Ken Kolker, one of local TV’s few real reporters who formerly wrote for the Grand Rapids Press. Channel 8 chose to use this feature in place of most of its local news and sports last night, and if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to retrieve it online. It’s just one more story about police and prosecutor tunnel-vision, where they focused on the wrong man in a murder case, and finally put him away. Later, another scum bag confessed to the crime.
As I watched, I felt as if bile might start coming up in a minute. It brought back all the memories of my 9 year battle to free the late Maurice Carter, a kind and gentle human being who served 29 years for a crime that someone else committed. And even though we found the real perpetrator in the crime, that man is still on the streets. The system wouldn’t budge.
I cannot begin to stress to you how often this happens.
Wrongful convictions is a terrible blight on the U.S. judicial system. In 2012 the University of Michigan Law School undertook a project to form what is now called the National Registry of Exonerations. Students and lawyers researched to determine how many convictions had been reversed since 1989. As of the writing of this blog, there have been 1,744 exonerations, and the number goes up daily.
Says retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan: Anybody who understands the justice system knows innocent people are convicted every day.
As you watch the Ken Kolker video clips from actual interrogation, you begin to realize just how seriously the cards are stacked against someone who is arrested. The state has all kinds of resources available. If you’re poor, you may be stuck with a court-appointed lawyer who got stuck with the job of defending you, and who really doesn’t care. The state is permitted to lie through its teeth to get a confession (you failed your lie detector test, we have actual evidence that puts you at the scene, we have hair samples, there’s dna proof, etc., etc.), yet you’ll get arrested if you lie.
This is serious stuff, boys and girls, and it can happen to you or me. It’s not just the poor people or those from ethnic minorities. I have tell you about wrongful convictions of middle to upper income white people, like a cop, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, a banker, and a businessman. Many of those who heard the powerful story of authors Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton here in Grand Haven could hardly believe their ears. And the other half of the problem is this: When the wrong person goes to prison, a criminal is still on the loose!
Anybody who thinks our allegedly perfect judicial system takes the position that you are innocent until proven guilty is sadly mistaken. It’s a pipe dream.
Listen to those people running for office, on the state level and for the presidency of our country. Pay particular attention to those who are demanding a reform of our judicial system. Regardless of political affiliation, I encourage you to support those people who get it and want to improve this situation.
There are 43,000 people in the Michigan prison system. There are 2.2 million people behind bars in this nation. A percentage of these people are innocent, and that is not acceptable. Yes, we must be concerned about and have compassion for victims of crime. But those innocent people behind bars are also victims. They're clamoring for our attention.
Quoting Sir William Gladstone: It is better than 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.