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.

 

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People bear the cost for rulers’ misbehavior

March 29, 2016

In a still unpublished manuscript on the way conservative economics has failed us, my friend Eric Zuesse remarked, “The ‘Greek debt’ is really not a debt of the Greek people.” He goes on to identify the “institutional creditors  … Euro-banks … high risk kleptocrats, oligarchs and bankers who siphoned most of the euros into overseas Swiss accounts …. [and other foreign investments] devoid of any capacity to generate income to pay back the debt.”

Eric’s statement is profound, pointing to the ways that those in power play with our lives and then displace the responsibility to their innocent victims. While I’m sure that some will argue that elections gave the Greek people some complicity, Eric accurately points to the ability of those primarily responsible to displace the costs of their own misbehavior.

I think we can see that pattern all over modern public affairs. What responsibility did the refugees in Syria or Iraq have for the wars that took their lives, homes and livelihoods? What responsibility did unemployed Americans have for the depression that was engineered by banks too big to fail, banks which traded worthless securities in an enormous Ponzi scheme for which they have not been prosecuted? The Supreme Court has cleared the manufacturers of failed medical devices for rupturing in our bodies but why is it somehow the responsibility of the victims to absorb the injuries and the costs? This is a pattern – the rich and powerful do the damage and outsource the costs to the rest of us.

Terrorists take advantage of that. They attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. But the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East have paid the price of our response, innocent men, women and children, polarizing regions and sweeping us into the worldwind. Our failure to calibrate the response had much wider repercussions.

The British, French, Germans and Spanish have suffered similar terrorist attacks, actually over many decades from many different groups, but they have managed to restrain their responses. England fought in the so-called “troubles” of Northern Ireland but finally learned that their response was devastating the wrong people and making the problem worse. The Spanish restrained their response to the Basques. All restrained their response to leftist terror. They responded with police work, ultimately capturing and trying many of the terrorists.

For many Americans anything but an all-out response seems unacceptable. Politicians attack restraint as weakness, not strength. And of course ordinary Americans pay the price. We pay it in the deficit, in taxes, in the lives of our loved ones in foreign wars, and in civil liberties at home. But those who benefit are immune. Major suppliers of paramilitary forces abroad like Blackwater and Halliburton get more contracts while they supply deniability to American leadership for their violations of human rights.

These are bad bargains. Will we have leadership capable of leading, capable of explaining to the American people and standing strong in the face of hotheads for whom an indiscriminate overreaction is the only so-called “manly” response. Will we have leadership capable of zeroing in on the perpetrators of economic collapse, mortgage failure, and malfunctioning products?

Isn’t it time to stop blaming the people for the misbehavior of the oligarchs? Or will the rulers, paraphrasing Thomas Hardy’s conclusion to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, end their sport with us?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 29, 2016.


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