Trial and Error

In this day and age, it would seem that the progress human society has made (in certain respects) should have brought us to be more careful and generally upright beings in our governmental dealings. The myth of government being an inherent institution in and of itself is false; governments were created and formalized by human imagination just as ice cream or luxury automobiles were. Governments are nothing without the individuals charged with leading them and the implicit or explicit consent of the masses that governments wield control over through myriad legislation at the municipal, county, state, federal, and international levels. The gravest “non-violent” act that a government can perform on one of its constituents is their imprisonment. Even as far back as Biblical or even ancient Greek times imprisonment was called into question by the leading moral authorities of the day.

Today, imprisonment in the U.S. is at levels never before known by human society. Even worse, a number of individuals who have been incarcerated for ten to twenty or more years of their lives are being PROVE INNOCENT and released with the judicial system hoping to keep these immense blunders under wraps. Government farces in this respect are leading a number of states to pursue moratoriums on death penalties until they get their acts right (if ever) and stop convicting numerous innocent citizens for highly serious crimes. (more in expanded post)

In a nation that purports to regard liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness as its chief ideals, restricting its citizens from these “inalienable rights” without the utmost care is inexcusable. Today’s legal system is one where the dollar reigns supreme and can be the different between incarceration and exoneration. Individuals who possess sufficient financial means are able to hire top rate lawyers who in turn can higher a cast of private investigators, statisticians, and others to support their case while putting an entire law firm behind the defense of a particular citizen. The poor and, largely, Black and Latino defendants that face criminal charges often must rely on public defenders who are too often overworked, underpaid, and underqualified. These individuals are most often the ones not just convicted, but these are most often the individuals that are WRONGLY convicted. A report released by the American Bar Association last year found more than 150 people who were convicted of crimes in 31 states and Washington, D.C. served a total of 1,800 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. These crimes ranged from simple assaults to murders and have garnered very little public attention until recently.

Last year, the documentary After Innocence was released by a group of filmmakers. The movie chronicles a number of exonerated individuals who served varying amounts of time in prison before DNA evidence proved their innocence (most of the exonerees in this film were convicted of rape). By chance, I happened to catch these individuals on Larry King Live this past December 21 and their stories are awe-inspiring. The ease with which individuals such as Wilton Dedge can speak of spending 22 years in prison and being released to the world without any sort of compensatory package or apology is beyond me. His case was one rife with mistruths from the beginning such the victim in the rape estimating her assailant as being 160 pounds and six feet tall while Dedge was only 125 pounds and stands 5’5. At one point, the prosecutor in his case even admitted IN COURT that he would continue to oppose Dedge’s release even if it was found that he was innocent. I encourage all of you to see this film when it plays in Kendall Square on February 3, 2006. There will even be a Question and Answer portion with one of the film’s creators and an exoneree, possibly Dennis Maher of nearby Lowell, MA. Thankfully, films like these are bringing to light the plight of these severely wronged individuals and exposing a deep and far-reaching problem in the U.S. judicial system that has yet to be adequately addressed.

In this day and age, far too many prosecutors seek convictions and headlines as oppose to justice. Concealing facts, encouraging false testimony, and forged evidence during the course of criminal proceedings occur far too often for one to not take a critical look at the judicial system in the U.S. Making convictions the primary motive for prosecutors is a problem in part due to the methods for promotion in District Attorney offices at numerous levels of government (i.e. municipal, county, state, federal, international). Prosecutors are in vigorous competition with each other for higher rank, higher pay, and higher influence. There is often intense public and governmental pressure to be “hard on crime” and not, necessarily, to be fair. Prosecutors who do not get convictions do not rise in the profession and may be seen as inferior legal experts; the expertise would of course be expertise in getting defendants under state control whether through the prison system, probation, a fine, or the like. True, a similar argument can be levied against defense attorneys that may often defend criminals they know are guilty. True, most criminal cases never reach trial and charges are either dismissed or their is a plea agreement. However, these government officials must be held to higher standards of decency and conduct due to the influence they have over a greater number of people’s lives and their sworn duty to the public whether elected or appointed.

All of these occurrences are leading some politicians and legislators to take action. In 2003, then-Governor George Ryan of Illinois made history by commuting the death sentences of all 156 inmates on death row in the state. This historic move showed that some individuals at high levels of government are taking notice of the flaws in this deadly system and working to overhaul it. U.S. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is pursuing federal legislation that will abolish the death penalty and bring about a moratorium on those sentences while encouraging states to do the same. Outgoing Governor Mark Warner of Virginia has even ordered DNA testing for a man who has alread been convicted AND EXECUTED for a crime there (what will happen if the test proves his innocence?). I am also personally proud that lawmakers in my home city of Trenton (state capital of New Jersey…therefore the home of the legislature) are also pursuing such a moratorium at the state level. Ten men in the state of New Jersey sit on death row across the street from my house at the New Jersey State Prison with their lives riding on the immense decisions that are made just a short drive away at the State Capitol building. These legislators have the possibility to do a great service and truly bring about positive change to New Jersey specifically and national society as a whole by stopping possibly innocent men from being murdered by state authorities. Until this is abhorrent situation is remedied, wrongly convicted individuals such as the recently executed Stanley “Tookie” Williams of California will never truly rest in peace.

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