January 24, 2008

The Horror

It's a slogan in our justice system that it's better that a thousand guilty men walk free than one innocent man go to prison. Somehow, though, a lot of people people don't seem to actualize that slogan.

The media has picked up the story of Tim Masters, a man convicted in 1999 of a murder that took place twelve years beforehand, who has recently been freed on the basis of DNA evidence that strongly suggests he was not the killer. He says the detective in charge of the investigation let his ego get in the way of dispassionately investigating the facts, and that the evidence against him -- stories he wrote and cartoons and drawings he made, the fact that he reported finding the victim's body and a forensic psychologist's expert opinion -- does not link him at all to the murder. I'm going to mention his case to my students today; it may be particularly useful to the kids on the defense team.

Here, I want to explore two other ideas. First, we need to take the slogan about keeping innocent people out of prison seriously. Prison is a terrible, awful place. It's a horrific thing to take a person's freedom away. Try to imagine, Readers, what it would be like to be imprisoned. You don't get to spend comfortable hours on your couch reading blogs. You get to share a cell with three to five bunkmates. You are at constant risk of violence from them and your fellow prisoners. You get an hour a day to exercise. You get to eat when you are told to eat and what you are given to eat. You likely have to go to the bathroom in front of your fellow prisoners. You have nothing to read or otherwise occupy your mind. You are surrounded by bad, violent people. Even if the prison is run with professionalism and all of your other rights are recognized, your every action, every second of the day, is directly controlled by the state and you live not at all unlike a caged animal. When you do get out, no one will hire you for any real job, and no one believes you when you insist that you are innocent. Your liberty is never fully restored; you must report to police and parole officers wherever you go and register as a paroled felon; you may not be able to leave the state or even the county of your release.

This man lost nearly ten years of his life on the basis of a legal system run amok. I can see how judges -- most of them former prosecutors -- are pressured to admit any relevant evidence, and the Supreme Court has given strong signals for nearly twenty years that the state is to be permitted wide latitude in introducing evidence for criminal prosecutions. Prosecutors, too, are under great public and political pressure to secure convictions, from a public justifiably concerned about violence. But the legal system exists precisely in order to serve as a check on that kind of zeal, and the power of its ability to check and balance zeal against justice and fairness must not be diminished.

That is why a wrongful conviction is so terrible. That is why we have such elaborate safeguards in our legal system. That is why we should not take criminal procedure casually or see it as an obstacle to justice.

Second, I can't help but notice that Mr. Masters is a good-looking white guy from Colorado. He is photogenic and articulate. He had a high-profile case that attracted some media attention during the trial. His family must have some means; they may not be affluent but they had enough money to pay detectives and forensic scientists to conduct tests and there was a competent lawyer working on his behalf -- so there were some resources available to him to help prove his innocence. These characteristics makes him very unusual amongst the population of people who have served time in prison. Most people in prison are black or latino men. I don't recall ever seeing so much publicity or press or sympathy for a black man who was found to be wrongfully convicted. But his time and lost life is worth every bit as much as Masters' is. We should be as outraged for these people as we are about Masters. But those stories don't catch fire.

I guess this is no different than media reports on missing pretty blonde girls; black and latina girls go missing at least as often as rich white girls do, but we never seem to hear about that. Black and latino men (and women) get convicted of crimes they did not commit, too; but we don't hear very much about that, either. While our sense of injustice about Masters' case should not be diminished in any way because of these facts, we should remember that race plays a role in the criminal justice system and try to work, hard, to treat people in a more evenhanded way.

Congratulations to Mr. Masters for getting his freedom back and, apparently, for proving his innocence -- and the best of luck to him in building a new life for himself. Would that all wrongfully-convicted prisoners be so fortunate.

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