Tuesday, April 24, 2007

200 Exonerated by Innocence Project

The Innocence Project has produced a pamphlet that tells the stories: 200 people wrongly convicted, imprisoned, many facing death.

The tragic truth revealed by the Innocence Project is that our criminal justice system gets it wrong. And remember, for each wrongly convicted person, a guilty party may go free.

Every one of those exonerated by the Innocence Project had been charged and convicted of the most serious crimes. You'd think that if the system got anything right, it would be the serious crimes.

One of the great disappointments during the tragic journey our family has been on is that those in the legal profession know how inaccurate the system is. They often refer a jury verdict as a "role of the dice." How terrible, I thought upon this, that such a cherished American tradition would be degraded to a game of chance. Sadly, though, that is the case, and it will continue to be the case until we can hold prosecutors accountable for unethical actions, and until we improve juror education and training.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Jurors and the Presumption of Innocence and Reasonable Doubt

Where has reflection and thoughtful analysis gone? Certainly, it's not modeled on TV. There's money and ratings in being cock-sure. Consider the popularity of CNN's own prosecutor-in-residence Nancy Grace. Jon Stewart provides some insight on this former prosecutor's ability to look at the evidence rationally:

So, should it be surprising that jurors often don't understand what presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt mean?

Though few jurors have spoken publicly about their decision process in Todd's case, the remarks of one, who chooses to remain anonymous, are enlightening and shocking:

Here's the transcript of the operative soundbite reported by Brian Arnot:

Q: Do you think beyond a reasonable doubt that he did do it?

Juror: I don't know....

Beyond reasonable doubt? Presumption of innocence? Now add to the obvious frustration rule of evidence 606(b): Such statements by jurors are inadmissable in court, and cannot be considered when reviewing a case on appeal.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The rush to indict

The DA charged Todd with murder four days after the stabbing. It would still be another three months before the forensic evidence would be sent to the state lab. It would be a half year before the lab completed its serology report. Months more would pass before any DNA analysis would be performed. Almost a year would pass before the DA requested the metro forensics unit in Colorado Springs to produce a crime scene analysis. Over thirteen months would pass before that report was released. It would say that a second person at the crime scene, the only person seen fighting with the victim, the person who, unlike Todd, was covered with the victim's blood, could not be eliminated as an assailant. By then the DA had already cut a deal with this likely assailant, had placed him beyond prosecution. The DA cut him a deal two months before the state crime lab had even opened the evidence packets in the case.

Today the news is filled with the Duke rape case. The New Times (12 April 2007) reports the conclusion of North Carolina's attorney general Roy A. Cooper:

“In this case, with the weight of the state behind him, the Durham district attorney pushed forward unchecked,” said Mr. Cooper, who took over the case in January. “There were many points in the case where caution would have served justice better than bravado. And in the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly.”
Bravado is seductive for the ambitious politician, and many prosecutors are politically ambitious. When faced with the trade-off between using the time it takes to get it right and the advantages of exuding action and decisiveness, ambition can tip the scale away from caution, away from truth. The premature indictment becomes an article of faith for the prosecutor who now needs to assert infallibility as well as decisiveness. It now steers the subsequent investigation. The goal: eliminate alternate suspects, avoid forensic tests that may be problematic to the case, conceal information that might help the accused. The new imperative is not "let justice be done"; rather, it becomes: "win the case."

Reade Seligman, the recently exonerated Duke lacrosse player, described the experience:

“This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed,” Mr. Seligmann said. “If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can’t imagine what they’d do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves. So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes and creating political and racial conflicts, all of us need to take a step back from this case and learn from it.

“The Duke lacrosse case has shown that our society has lost sight of the most fundamental principle of our legal system: the presumption of innocence.” (from the New York Times, 12 April 2007)

The loss of the presumption of innocence: all Americans should shudder.