Okay, here’s what I was thinking when you caught me escaping; it seems like every time I open up my USA Today newspaper, or catch a news segment in the dayroom, someone else is being exonerated. The celebratory image is usually of a grateful, gray-haired man, snatched from his prison purgatory on earth and delivered from a life sentence in a cell, in tears or smiling, embracing his layer (savior) in a jubilant courtroom full of camera flashes and reporters/journalist eager to publicize his story, the same reporters who wouldn’t listen to him at one time (trust me, I know).
Maybe when it comes to the true frequency of exonerations, I have a selective memory because I was wrongfully convicted myself. I’m partial, I readily identify with every exonerees pain, and I so desperately want to be that man in the courtroom receiving justice, so the occasional exoneration stories stand out to me. While the average person shakes their head sympathetically for a brief moment then continues to channel-surf, I get tears in my eyes that sometimes fall down my face because I’m currently walking every unjust step he walked, in the same black brogan boots, and I know exactly what he, the exoneree, felt to wake up in a prison cell, day after day, for a crime he didn’t commit.
But maybe exonerations are frequent and prevalent in our society, where we, the U.S., it has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. It stands to reason that if our society has more people incarcerated then there are more more chances for exonerations. Not according to me, the biased future-exoneree, but according to a judge, though the U.S. accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. also, staggeringly, accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population and “either our fellow Americans are far more dangerous than the citizens of any other country, or something is seriously out of whack in the criminal justice system” (U.S. District Judge, Michael A. Ponsor, of Springfield, Massachusetts, in the Wall Street Journal).
You know, maybe the surge in exonerations has nothing to do with the massive prison population in the U.S., and the constant trickle of exonerations leaking from courtrooms is proof that there are some serious ideological, logistical, and procedural flaws in our criminal justice system. Maybe the trickle-down, tough-on-crime promises given by elected lawmakers are strongly influencing cops, detectives, and District Attorney’s to get a conviction with each arrest they make. Granted, most of the time they get it right, they apprehend the right suspect, but how many innocent people fall into the ‘sometimes’ category when they don’t’ get it right? “Um, sorry buddy, you look like the guy, you were in the area, we convinced one witness that it was you, so you’re basically guilty (pat on the back), don’t worry, there’s hope, you could be exonerated 20 years from now, we get it right eventually” (wink). (Erroneous eye-witness identification is an element in around seventy-five percent of all proven wrongful convictions.)
So maybe, many detectives and District Attorneys are getting it wrong, multiple times in some jurisdictions and counties. Again, the proof is in the exonerations. Let’s not even discuss the ‘petty’ exonerations, after all, what are 10 or 20 years of someone’s life. Did you know that since 2008, 20 people who were waiting to die one death row have been exonerated? (USA Today, Crime Crackdown Era is Ending, by Kevin Johnson.) Yep, I would say that’s no insignificant example of injustice. You know the state had to have some convincing, physical evidence to let a ‘criminal’ walk free from death row. I have followed enough cases to know the states concede stubbornly to DNA evidence, and even then, they drag out the judicial process so that it takes a generation for someone to be exonerated (Glen Ford spent 30 years on Louisiana’s death row before he was exonerated this year).
It makes me wonder, celly … how many men are on death row (or in prison) who don’t have the luxury of having DNA/physical evidence? So their chances of being exonerated are slim to none. I guess they-we ( I have no DNA/physical evidence in my case either-will either die by lethal injection, spend the rest of their lives in prison, or we will be granted parole one day when we’re old.
Prior to DNA identification technology, District Attorneys, Judges, and Juries (the judicial system) were looked upon as being infallible. True, they made mistakes, but there was a public perception, to an extent there still is, that District Attorneys were always right when defendants were found guilty in a ‘civilized’ court of law by an impartial jury of their peers. Even that sentence sounds so righteous and professional that if I weren’t a victim of the system I would be naïve enough to believe if someone gets found guilty then there’s probably a great chance they must be guilty.
Without DNA identification technologies, nearly all exonerees would still be in a cell or on death row waiting to die. DNA identification exposed decades upon decades of injustices that were taking place in our civilized courtrooms all across America. Acceptable, illegal police practices and standards were exposed. The legal loopholes that death row inmates and lifers slipped through were exposed. Like Greek gods, District Attorneys and Judges were exposed, lowered from their immortal clouds and society discovered that they are people just like the defendants they are prosecuting. Not only did DNA identification lead to the reopening of cases and investigations that revealed that detectives and District Attorneys do make mistakes, but we have learned (thank you DNA) that they have made intentional ‘mistakes’ (if that’s what you want to call them) as they tried to play God with another person’s life. And the reason I mention judges is because many District Attorneys were promoted to the bench on the popular guilty verdicts of someone they helped to wrongfully convict.
It’s hard to imagine our criminal justice system existing without DNA and forensic evidence identification methods. People have agendas/motives, science doesn’t. DNA identification technologies and the exonerations they have produced have dramatically transformed the judicial system for the best. New laws and policies have been enacted. Police procedures have changed, such as the way they go about conducting line-ups in some states (see New Jersey). District Attorney’s, are not because morals but because of science (DNA), are under more scrutiny to be right and are under less pressure to convict the ‘most likely’ suspect. Our judicial system is evolving in a positive direction with science and technology.
However, with the seemingly daily exonerations we see on television and the innocent people like me who still languish in a prison cell, there is still a lot of work to be done towards convicting the right suspect and preventing the wrong person from being wrongfully convicted, especially in cases like mine where there is no DNA/physical evidence. There’s still a lot of work to be done when a man like Glen Ford’s exoneration compensation was capped at $250,000 by Louisiana laws after he spent 30 years on death row. Not only did they take forever to exonerate him but now Louisiana’s unfavorable exoneration laws won’t properly compensate him. How sad. What an insult to the so called justice they finally did give him. We have made considerable progress towards thwarting wrongful convictions, but as a society super-sensitive to locking people up, we have a long way to go, all you have to do is turn on your television, open the newspaper, or search online and you will see the latest in a string of exonerees.