Do We Need A Better Way To Address False Convictions?

As I read A Botched Trial Leads To $30 Million Judgment For Nebraska County That Can’t Pay (Washington Post), I was struck that the story sought sympathy for the county (Gage County, Nebraska) rather than for the six wrongfully convicted people who filed the lawsuit.

In short: 68-year-old Helen Wilson was murdered in 1985 by an Oklahoma man (Bruce Allen Smith, who died of AIDS in Oklahoma in 1992), later proved by DNA evidence. Long before DNA evidence was common in court, three men and three women were convicted of Wilson’s murder and served a combined 77 years in prison. All six were exonerated by DNA testing in 2008, and they filed suit the following year. One of the six died before the suit resulted in a trial. Eventually, the case concluded in 2016 with a $30 million judgment against the county, which led to the Washington Post story in my lede.

I don’t dispute that the hefty fine is impossible for Gage County to pay. Gage County is similar in population and wealth to the county where I lived in Oklahoma — they’d have to sell off every single asset, including the courthouse, jail, bridges and roads, in order to come up with that kind of money. Or raise taxes to unheard of levels. Or take a loan they’d never be able to replay.

But I do dispute what I see as misplaced empathy in the story, which seems to ignore the real wrong — that six people went to prison — one of them for more than 20 years — for a crime they didn’t commit. Money can’t get back those years, whether for the “Beatrice Six” or their families that were ripped apart by the miscarriage of justice; nothing can truly rectify the wrongs done to them by the criminal justice system.

This story has become a common one; hundreds have now been released from prison after DNA (and other) evidence has exonerated them. I’ve read of a few cases where the newly released, newly pardoned person is simply thankful to be out and rejoined with family. Others have sued, and many have won. Often, those suits are against a state or a large city or heavily populated county. In my research, it’s rare to see a judgment against such a rural, poor county, especially a judgment this large.

It raises the question: should we be doing something differently?

Other questions, too, were raised by this story and similar ones.

* I noted that only one of the six went to trial; the others entered plea deals to avoid longer prison sentences. I know this was a relatively common practice at the courthouse I covered and I assume it is at others too. Five people pleaded guilty to a crime they didn’t commit, convinced that a jury would find them guilty. It made me think about all the folks that we condemn in our minds after reading news stories. Unlike many of my peers, I don’t assume guilt based purely on arrests or charges, but I do often assume guilt once a person has entered a plea. Perhaps I can do better.

* Why do some exonerated persons win judgments of millions while others get nothing? I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that each case is handled on its own merits without any overriding national standard for reparations in such cases. I would think that X time served should result in Y dollars, if we’re going to allow any monetary judgments at all.

* Within my lifetime, people were going to prison for murder convictions without regular DNA testing. It was a new, untested thing. It makes me wonder what new, untested thing hasn’t been introduced now that will in 20 or 40 years be overturning court cases that we are currently trying.

* I’ve heard some suggest completely ending (perhaps by federal law) the practice of large payouts in such cases. To them, the primary concern is taxpayers paying the penalty for something that a handful of prosecutors or judges did decades earlier. To me, they severely lack concern for the innocent person whose life was ruined, based on the shaky theory that there is some qualitative difference between the wrongfully convicted and the never-arrested.

* Whose fault is it? We like to know, because we like to punish. But in these cases, the blame is often spread around. Sometimes it’s a faulty prosecutor; other times the law itself might be at fault. In many cases, it turns out that a bit of racism crept into the court proceedings. Often, the entire system is rigged toward producing convictions, from the initial call to police to the rules that judges read aloud to juries. Judges and prosecutors are often elected positions, and voters often demand a high conviction rate and long prison sentences.

***

The above is simply my attempt to separate a few different questions from the swirl in my brain after reading the story. I don’t claim there is an easy solution or a one-size-fits-all way to fix it. I think an ideal society, constructed entirely from scratch, would end up with a massively different criminal justice system than we have now. I don’t know what it would look like, because like my readers I’ve grown up in our own system, indoctrinated since birth that despite its imperfections we’re “pretty close” to the ideal system.

13 Comments
  1. No. We don’t need a better way of handling false convictions. We need a better way of avoiding false convictions. The more you read into this case, the more it sounds like a bad movie. There was no real evidence. There were no real witnesses. But the prosecution convinced the defense that it had a case. So people confessed to a crime that they didn’t commit and accepted an unjust punishment. A hero rises up and finds not just proof of innocence but proof of guilt. Then lawyers hovering swoop into a feeding frenzy. Cases are won, lost, dismissed, appealed. Until finally (so far) a federal jury stands up and say enough.

    It boggles the mind why every means available to prove innocence weren’t initially employed.

    But that’s the message being sent.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Thumbs up to everything you said.

      “It boggles the mind why every means available to prove innocence weren’t initially employed.”

      Indeed. My own (small-town, backwater) experience in similar court cases shows that this is almost always the case. The entire system appears designed to send straight to prison any person initially accused by police.

      This is what I was referring to when I noted: “I think an ideal society, constructed entirely from scratch, would end up with a massively different criminal justice system than we have now.”

  2. Dana says:

    Ok, I could write a treatise on this (after 20 years as a criminal defense attorney; and specifically, a public defender) but I will keep my remarks short and only address one of your points.

    With regard to this – “Whose fault is it? We like to know, because we like to punish. But in these cases, the blame is often spread around. Sometimes it’s a faulty prosecutor; other times the law itself might be at fault. In many cases, it turns out that a bit of racism crept into the court proceedings. Often, the entire system is rigged toward producing convictions, from the initial call to police to the rules that judges read aloud to juries. Judges and prosecutors are often elected positions, and voters often demand a high conviction rate and long prison sentences.”

    Our criminal justice system isn’t set up to arrive at the truth. The ostensible goal of criminal prosecutions is to achieve “justice.” The entity at fault is almost always the government (police and prosecution); evidence is overlooked, withheld, destroyed or altered. This happens routinely.

    Also, the current system is inherently racist and also discriminates against the poor. There are too many studies and articles out there demonstrating and analyzing why this is, but it’s something I and my clients come up against every single day. Additionally, we live in a essentially a Christian country that favors retribution over rehabilitation, which can make facing trial (where after a guilty verdict you face potentially Draconian sentences) not worth the risk. It has also been a trend for the past decade or so that we criminalize more and more actions.

    Suggested reading and websites, if you want to learn more:

    The Marshall Project’s website has numerous articles on the inherent biases in the criminal justice system and why innocent people would falsely confess or plead guilty.

    The Innocence Project: https://www.innocenceproject.org/

    A good discussion of the pressure to plea versus going to trial from the New York Times Book Review: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/11/20/why-innocent-people-plead-guilty/

    Also, the “bail trap” https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/magazine/the-bail-trap.html?_r=0

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Thanks for replying! (And I’m sorry your comment didn’t go straight through — I think my spam filter caught it because of the multiple links.)

      Thank you also for the links. I intend to read up on them within in the next couple of days. (I’m on “spring break” right now, so we might be out of the house a bunch this week.) :-)

  3. Dana says:

    I also recommend:

    The book, “The New Jim Crow” http://newjimcrow.com/

    and the documentary, 13th.

  4. This is all part of a much bigger problem, the logical fallacy argumentum ad verecundiam. The day of an arrest you hear (and see on the web) “those douchebags should spend 1000 years in prison for what they did.” Whether they did it or not. Appeal to authority makes it seem like police and prosecutors are always right.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Indeed. Almost daily on my local newspaper’s web page (and Facebook page), I see these comments on any arrest story. And I heard these comments face-to-face when I was the one writing the arrest stories. MANY members of the public have ZERO belief in the principle of innocent until proven guilty or even due process. “Execute them immediately!” is the mindset. (Until it’s their brother or father or son who’s the one in jail awaiting a court date. Then suddenly it’s a rare case of a police mistake.)

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