Convicting the Innocent

June 21, 2016

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.

 


“Enhanced Interrogation”

December 17, 2014

We’ve been hearing people talk about “enhanced interrogation” for quite a while. Then the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the CIA’s use of torture was released this week. And we got another dose of “enhanced interrogation.” We’ve been hearing it so much one stops noticing. That’s the technique of the big lie – say it often enough and people accept it.

This time I got in the car in time to hear someone talking about “enhanced interrogations.” I missed the announcement, but I think it was John Brennan, current CIA Chief. No matter, everyone seems to be using the term, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Brennan, it’s in the Report and all over the place – “enhanced interrogation.”

No, they were not “enhanced.” Torture, brutal, degraded and inhumane is not enhanced. I’m disgusted at the use of enhanced as a so-called euphemism for morally unacceptable. It shows how degraded some of us have become when we think totally reprehensible is “enhanced.”

Rape is not “enhanced” affectionate behavior. Murder is not “enhanced” roughhousing.

Until now we blamed the world’s barbarians for torturing people. Now it turns out Americans used torture as official policy. And because we’ve used it, some people try to defend it. That’s the way we corrupt our souls. We’ve allowed ourselves to be dragged into the muck of sin so now we proclaim the sacred power of sin. Yippee.

Republicans were incensed when Clinton had a consensual sexual experience with a young woman but they assert the right to cause extreme suffering, and to make it worse, without even figuring out how many innocent people they were torturing in the process. God forbid we figure that out – the Bush Administration fought every effort to provide the benefit of any legal process designed to separate the innocent from the guilty to the “detainees,” another euphemism. Now they find some of them were innocent.

But these days to be tough means to forget law and order and take the law into your own hands, except that’s a euphemism too for doing whatever they felt like regardless of the law. That truly is the message of the Bush Administration and the Bush-Cheney-CIA “enhanced interrogation” – that they are lawless, have no respect for law except as something they can twist for their own purposes. Skip the nonsense of original understanding of the Constitution – it’s just a way to ignore what they don’t like and do something worse.

No “enhanced interrogation” is not acceptable, not in reality and not as a figure of speech. Those responsible should be blacklisted from civil society. Remember these were the trumpets of so-called morality – but what we’re seeing is how immoral they truly are. We’re more moral and better off without them. They deserve to be deported far more than the families they are so determined that Obama deport. Then maybe America could regain its moral compass.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 16, 2014.


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