Sometimes When You Win. . . Exonerations and Criminal Defense.
In the 1992 basketball film White Men Can’t Jump, it was explained:
Sometimes when you win, you really lose and sometimes when you lose, you really win and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose.
Neither does the state of our Criminal Justice System.
Sometimes When You Win…
The National Registry of Exonerations Report revealed a record (get used to this word) number of United States exonerations in 2015: 149 exonerations in fact, with five exonerations coming straight outta death row. Of the 149 exonerations, wrongfully convicted persons served on average about 14-and-a-half years in prison.
Homicide: 58 or 39 % (new record)
Drug Cases: 51 or 34% (42 or 82% of the drug exonerations came from Clutch City, Texas)
Sexual Assault: 15 or 10%
…You Actually Lose:
Why are there so many exonerations? Why are people averaging 14 ½ years in prison for something they did not do? Why since 2011 have exonerations nearly doubled? Is it the criminal defense attorneys? The prosecutors? The judges?
The answer lies in the disconcerting reasons below (exonerations were based on either one or a combination of).
Official Misconduct: 65 or 44% (a new record)
Guilty Pleas 65 or 44% (another new record)
False Confessions 27 or 18% (and another new record)
No-Crime Cases: 75 or 50%
DNA: 26 or 17%
Note: Not accounted for, but an often cited reason for wrongful convictions is mistaken identity.
There’s gonna be some stuff you gonna see
that’s gonna make it hard to smile in the future.
With nearly half of the exonerations coming from Houston, you don’t have to look very far to find shattered oaths littered by those sworn to protect and serve.
Look at the court’s findings in the David Temple case listing 36 instances of prosecutorial misconduct. Check out the Joseph Salazar case accused of attempting to disarm a peace officer, before criminal defense attorneys subpoenaed video that proved otherwise. Official misconduct isn’t just Houston’s problem, wrongdoing can be found across the country. Official misconduct is particularly troubling given the role authority figures play in the system. These are the very people at the heart of justice. The very people who have the power and authority to ensure the truth is revealed. Yet, with at least three exonerations per week it is clear some officials have lost sight of their professional duties.
Why would someone plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit? From the outside, it seems impossible. From the inside, it is a different story. Especially, for example, from the inside of jail under FBI Investigation. The justice system is a money system. If you don’t have the bank roll to bond out of jail or defend your case, a “deal” can put you back on the job and with your family. While the intentions at this stage may not be as malicious as above, innocent people are still stuck in prisons and with permanent convictions.
How could someone be convicted of something that is not a crime?
A quick guilty plea for a low-level drug cases where subsequent lab results reveal otherwise is such an example. 51 wrongfully convicted drug cases were exonerated last year in Houston alone.
Convictions secured by “junk science” like Cameron Willingham’s arson accusation is another. Overall jurors want to do the right things. They see a well-dressed, well-spoken, so-called government expert explaining “junk science” and it sounds believable. The experts of the unsinkable ship, Titanic, sounded believable too. “Junk science” has become a “fly in the ear” for many types of criminal offenses.
People often find it difficult to believe someone would admit to a crime they did not commit. Unfortunately false confession can and do happen. Police “tunnel vision”, trained interrogation techniques, twisted words, lengthy interviews, and overmatched suspects are some of the many reasons false confessions occur. One exonerated case even involved police torture.
Still Work To Be Done
While a few major cities, including Houston, have deployed Conviction Integrity Units designed to prevent, identify and correct false convictions, there is still much work to be done. The growing number of exonerations fail to account for low-level offenders lacking the means, determination or desperation to prove their innocence. While they may not be facing death or lengthy prison sentences, the collateral consequences of a conviction carry a heavy weight. Until those with the ability to make changes for the betterment of the system do so, these flaws will remain. Criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges must demand better. So sure, it is a great that falsely accused persons are being freed at a record rate, but they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. In other words, sometimes when you win, you really lose.