Saturday, October 25, 2008

Exonerated in Texas

Texas Monthly has a very powerful story this month about 37 men who were sentenced to prison, served time, and were exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence. The number of exonerated men is small, but that reflects the fact that most crimes don't leave DNA evidence (all of these men had been convicted of rape), and even in such crimes, not all jurisdictions retain their evidence after the final appeal. The number of innocent men in prison is far greater than we'd like to believe.

Their tales are harrowing, especially of the guys who figured, well, I'm obviously innocent and have just been picked up for a superficial reason (like wearing a plaid shirt, in one case)--only to find themselves doing hard-time for 10 years or more. Worst are the guys who made false confessions--where the cops told them they'd get the needle if they didn't confess. Would you confess to a crime if you were being threatened with death? Some of these guys have been able to do amazing things since leaving prison (Christopher Ochoa, a Pizza Hut employee when he went in, is now a lawyer in Madison, WI, and Anthony Robinson is now a lawyer who runs a consultancy in Beijing), but many have struggled--after all, their young manhood, when they'd be learning job skills and putting down roots, has been wasted in a living hell, where you learn skills opposite of those that would help you thrive in society.

Reading this article, several statutory reforms come to mind.
  • All evidence should be retained for at least as long as the prisoner is incarcerated or paroled, especially DNA evidence.
  • Eyewitness identification protocols (such as the "line-up") which have proven again and again to have high rates of error should be abolished and replaced with procedures proven in laboratory environments to produce better results.
  • Likewise, defense attorneys should have the right (if they don't already) to bring up the statistical evidence regarding the unreliability of police line-ups in trial.
  • There should be serious consequences for police and/or prosecutorial mishandling of evidence, with no statute of limitations (so that if a man is exonerated after 17 years in prison, the people who put him there can still be punished if they did anything wrong).
Now the knee-jerk response to calls for this kind of reform is that it is soft on crime. It makes these reforms hard for Texas politicians to initiate. But remember that these men did not commit the crimes, and the people who did, in many cases, are still free. By putting these men in prison, the justice system guaranteed that a rapist would continue to walk the streets, a free man. Furthermore, DNA evidence, when handled properly (and not by incompetents like the Harris County Crime Lab or frauds like Fred Zain), leads to more and better prosecutions. On balance, we want more rapists in jail and more innocent people out of jail, right?

One great Texas blog that covers these issues often is Grits for Breakfast. It's well worth subscribing to if you are interested in police, prosecutors, judges and jails in Texas.

One last word--the photo above is by Randall Ford. The small jpeg on Texas Monthly's website doesn't do it justice. If you can, get your hands on a copy of the magazine, where it is printed as a two-page spread. It has an almost painterly texture, and the faces of the men are striking--defiant, defeated, proud, beaten down, sad but strong. A powerful photograph.



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