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Justice & Innocence…

I recall one time when the supervisor of the education dept at FCI Ray Brook, Lake Placid, NY, asked me, “Are you claiming you’re innocent?”

   I was stumped for a moment.  The question was a non sequitur, out of the blue.  We had been discussing their withholding my grade-one pay at the prison factory for the requirement that I take a GED exam (I already had 3 yrs of university).

   After the first couple of yrs of my 25-yr sentence, I had ceased arguing my conviction.  What was the point? No one was listening, and the courts were not following their own law.  

   In my own experience, few prisoners claim innocence.  Their argument, like my own, was often some form of mitigated circumstance, mischarging, over-charging, dirty deals with snitches, and outright manipulation and manufacturing of evidence.

   “Actually,” I answered, “Yes.  Of the crime charged (membership in a certain cocaine conspiracy), I am innocent.”

   He startled the room by jumping up, clapping his hands, and gleefully laughing.  Reaching out to me, he said, “Let me shake your hand.  Every day for the past 16 yrs I’ve worked in the prison system, I’ve heard about convicts who claim that they’re innocent.  You’re the first one I’ve actually met!”  Clearly, he had a regular shtick…

    In addition to such manipulations, the law itself is often tailored to support weak prosecutorial positions.  Conspiracy cases since 1984, for instance, no longer require a predicate act or any evidence whatsoever for a conviction.  Testimony alone of whatever witness the prosecution provides satisfies the law.

One might see how easily false convictions could thus be obtained and upheld.  I did.  But every so often, an individual in a position of power and influence comes along who holds social ideals higher than conservative and personal ambitions.

Such a person is a Republican politician from Ohio, Jim Petro.  During his tenure as Attorney General (2003-07), he came to the conclusion that there are a significant number of wrongful convictions throughout the state and federal courts of Ohio.

Petro and his wife, Nancy, wrote and published, False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent (Kaplan, 2010).  The myths they spoke to includes the fallacious chestnut that all prisoners claim their innocence.  Actually, they write, this is a relatively rare occurrence.

The Petros do assert that there are, however, many convictions of the innocent, suggesting  tens of thousands.  They also estimate that at least 25% of all wrongful convictions included a false confession.  (Gee, I wonder how that could happen?)

Their list includes the fact that police and prosecutors pursue arrests and cases they doubt; that eyewitness ID is no better than 50-50; that appeals are heavily weighted against the petitioner; that victims are best served with a proper conviction of the guilty; and that errant justice systems are almost never corrected from inside professionals.

Systemic corrections, they point out, are usually the product of innocence project advocates, journalists, law professors, and the occasional public official.

The Petros and their book are a welcome addition to the quest for American justice.

And the former supervisor of education at FCI Ray Brook, NY?  He and his assistant were later prosecuted for grand theft for stealing prisoner and gov’t educational funds.  How’s that for jokey time?

   Dr. Publico

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One Response
  1. Raff Ellis says:

    Nick,

    Something that has bothered me for a long time is the metrics that are used for performance evaluations of law enforcement and the judicial system. The raw data of no. of arrests and no. of convictions only promotes injustice and the pursuit of easy enforcement. Take pot arrests as an example; I believe it’s not off the books largely because they fall into the “easy” bust category, like speeding. Cops don’t have to worry about getting shot at by pot-smoking students.

    As long as prosecutors are measured by the no. of convictions, you will have abuse–convictions at any cost. As long as cops are measured by the no. of busts, you will have abuse, going after easy busts.

    What other “crimes” does the justice system like? Immigration is one. Enforcement and anti-reform is promoted by the jailhouse industry. And there are lots more.

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