Thomas Cahill, author of A Saint on Death Row, the story of Dominque Green, was interviewed by Bob Edwards this weekend. Dominque Green was executed on October 26, 2004, in Texas for a murder he didn't commit. As I listened to the interview, I knew I'd have to write my thoughts to Bob Edwards. Here's what I sent him:
As I drove across the plains of eastern Colorado, I listened with greater intensity than usual to your interview with Thomas Cahill. My destination was the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility, a Colorado State prison, my destination every weekend as I listen to your show. After listening to your interview, I turned into the prison parking lot, walked through the prison's reception center, processed through to the visiting room, and waited for my son Todd to appear. He's serving 31 years for a murder he didn't commit.
As I sat waiting for Todd, Cahill's claim that middle-class people don't face wrongful convictions echoed. We are a family firmly rooted in the middle class. I'm an English professor at the Air Force Academy, my wife of over 40 years is a marriage and family therapist, Todd's sister is a physician.
Once, in what seems a different life, I'd have accepted Cahill's comforting claim that our middle-class status insulated us from the potential of a wrongful conviction. Experience tells me, however, that his claim is a false comfort. Once, I’d read with horror the rising number of people who’d spent years in prison for crimes they hadn’t committed before being exonerated by the Innocence Project. But it was a detached horror, something like the horror of hearing about a shark attack while sipping a latte in Denver. The horror now is palpable.
The causes of false convictions are manifold: Among them are eyewitness misidentification, the use of unreliable forensic technologies, the mishandling of evidence, false confessions, investigatory incompetence or misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, the use of unreliable informants or snitches, and bad lawyering. Although the poverty of a defendant increases the chances for a false conviction, a misstep at any point can send criminal investigations and prosecutions arcing towards a false conviction regardless of the defendant's wealth. Only by understanding how the process fails will we find sensible remedies for a system that too often convicts the innocent.
Like many other tragedies, false convictions fall disproportionately upon the poor and those who have suffered other forms of social injustice, like Dominique Green. But our case testifies to the enduring truth of Martin Luther King’s words from forty years ago: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All of us need to understand the personal risk we assume when we ignore a significant injustice.