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.

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