Convicting the Innocent

I care about what happened in Orlando because the victims and their families are all members of the human family. And I cringe at the self-styled protestors who use God’s name in vain as an excuse for their own inhumanity toward the grieving families, who deserve to know that we care and share their grief.

Another story is also on my mind. On June 5, the Times Union headline read “Murder verdicts in doubt.” Two men were convicted in 1999 for the murder of a University at Albany student, and have already served 17 years in prison. The two men were grilled aggressively, until they broke down, trying to end the interrogation, and signed a confession. But an Ohio prisoner has now told officials he was the killer and expressed incredulity that Albany Police took a confession from prisoners who hadn’t been able to supply a single fact about the crime because neither had committed it. More than a fifth of exonerated prisoners had signed confessions.

Prisoners break down for many reasons. After hours or days of questioning by people who claim to know you’re guilty, appear ready to keep going until you surrender and sign, and tell you they’ll stop if you sign, that you’ll get off easier, or they won’t recommend the death penalty, it takes a lot of strength to continue to protest innocence. Some don’t have that strength because they are young and inexperienced. Some don’t muster that strength because they have confidence that the system will acquit them since they really didn’t do it. Some plead for lawyers but are broken before any come. It isn’t that hard to break people down and force them to say or sign false statements with enough pressure. It is the sophisticated, educated, trained individual who has some chance of

The two men convicted in this case had an alibi that police could have checked if they were seriously interested in convicting the right people. Police could have had the prisoners write what they remembered instead of dictating what they wanted in the confessions. The police actually tore up what they wrote as not good enough. People break. Breaking doesn’t mean confessing the truth. And being too [quotes] “weak” to withstand that kind of interrogation doesn’t mean people aren’t decent and couldn’t be valuable to their parents, spouses, children and society. We’re not all tough just like we’re not all Einsteins. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

Sending the wrong people to prison does double damage – it lets the guilty go free while the innocent suffer. Unfortunately it’s not rare. Sometimes it’s the result of sloppiness. Eye-witness identification of strangers, for example, is notoriously unreliable. Experiments have shown witnesses doing no better than chance. Suggestive lineups can be much worse than that. Failure to follow leads often results in convicting the innocent. It’s not just overly “aggressive” police work; sometimes police or prosecutors are so anxious to look good for “solving” a crime that they lose sight of who’s guilty. Sometimes they’ve framed people to cover their own misdeeds.  All of those things happen. The individual and collective results are tragic.

I keep hoping that cases like these will at least help people understand that what many call “prisoners’ rights” are actually the rights of all of us designed to make sure that innocent people, any of us, are not convicted and sent to prison for crimes we did not commit.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 21, 2016.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: