There seems to be a disturbing trend, and what I see as a constant theme, in the American Justice system. That theme is “let’s get a conviction whatever it takes.” If it takes making a deal with a convicted criminal to testify in trials with little or no physical evidence, to gain a conviction, let’s do it. (It literally amazes me to see how innocent they make these criminals out to be in front of a jury.) If we have to withhold information from the defense to get a conviction, let’s do it. (Don’t withhold evidence, that’s criminal, but withhold, say, a recanting of testimony right before a witness takes the stand.) If we have to manipulate a jury to get a conviction, let’s do it. (Let’s face it, this is considered a “skill” by most attorneys.) And once we get that conviction, the tide is turned. You now must prove in the appeal process that you are INNOCENT. And instead of that decision being made by a jury of “your peers” it will be decided by a judge (or judges) in appellate courts.
I pointed out one case that I’m watching very closely, a few weeks ago, the Ryan Ferguson case, in Columbia, Missouri. I saw another one last night, the Anthony Graves case in Somerville, Texas. Graves was an innocent man who served 18 years on death row in Texas for murders he not only didn’t commit, but there was really no way he could have committed them. And, of course, there was no real physical evidence. The only thing they had was the real murderer who saw him on the street when he was being arrested and decided to say he was involved. He recanted that claim three times before trial and the prosecution knew it. Once right before he took the stand. The murders, seven of the victims were innocent children and babies, happened in a town miles away, and Graves knew none of the victims. Nothing even to hint at a motive. He also had an alibi. His girlfriend. But she refused to testify at the last-minute because she was afraid they would link her to the crime. If her boyfriend, who had been home with her the entire evening with witnesses, could be tried for murder, why not her?
On this date, April 25th, 1989, James Richardson walked out of a Florida prison after serving 21 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted of killing his seven children. Amazing case. The jury handed down a death penalty verdict in a little over an hour and a half. The majority of the testimony revolved around an unsolicited insurance salesman (the unsolicited part was carefully left out by the prosecution) trying to sell James insurance on his whole family a few days before the children were poisoned. He did not buy any insurance, because he couldn’t afford the premiums, so that fact should have been enough. They also produced three convicts who testified that they heard Richardson admitting to the murders while in jail. What the jury didn’t hear was that the prosecution knew that his wife was on parole for killing her second husband with poison and was suspected in killing her first husband the same way. They didn’t prosecute her. Probably wasn’t allowed by the judge, in fact I’m pretty sure of it.
Twenty-seven states have compensation plans for wrongly convicted and incarcerated individuals. Texas is one of them. They are also number one in carrying out the death penalty. If the Anthony Graves case is any indication of the accuracy of convictions in the state, I wonder how many innocent men have gone to their death?
When Graves was released, they made a clerical error on his release papers, so the state of Texas is refusing to the pay the $1.4 million due him in compensation. Unbelievable. They should be bringing charges against the overzealous prosecutor that is still claiming he had it right and did nothing wrong. He said the new prosecutor in the case, who had never lost a death penalty case, was afraid to try the case and lose, after the appellate courts finally granted Graves a new trial. The real reason: THERE WAS NOT ONE SCRAP OF EVIDENCE TYING HIM TO THE CRIME!
So, does this happen often? You’ve heard of the Innocence Project, right? If you haven’t you should check it out. According to the their website, there have been 268 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the US since 1992. Seventeen of those served time on death row. The innocent have served an average of 13 years and were an average age of 27 when they were incarcerated. The good news is this new DNA evidence has found the real criminal in 117 cases. The bad news is that DNA evidence is possible in less than 5-10% of all cases.
I’ve talked about three cases where convictions were secured by nothing more than the testimony of witnesses that were not in the least reliable. Most all of the witnesses were plea bargaining, convicted felons testifying with promises from the prosecutors that they would be given better treatment, or shorter sentences, or not prosecute others they were protecting. This just flat needs to stop. And remember, all these “witnesses” did was say the individual did it, or overheard them say they did it while in jail awaiting trial. No other proof whatsoever. Just their word.
Second thing that has to stop is the weight put on the unreliable “eyewitness identification.” I don’t put 10 cents worth of value on the identification of an eyewitness, and it should be weighted that way by police and, if it leads to trial, by a jury. There is a very, very limited number of us that can recall someone with the kind of detail the police and prosecutors want to believe.
And lastly, every single second of police interrogation has to be video-taped. Every single confession must be on tape, not written down by a third-party and signed by the alleged suspect. Every single possible suspect needs to be investigated as well. Enough of these prosecutor’s theories. Get the evidence. WTF. Let’s start there.