Prisons Full of Innocents

Published on War Is A Crime.org, by David Swanson, June 20, 2013.

There are probably more innocent men and women in prison in the United States now than there were people in prison here total — innocent and guilty — 30 years ago, or than there are total people in prison (proportionately or as an absolute number) in most nations on earth.  

I don’t mean that people are locked up for actions that shouldn’t be considered crimes, although they are.  I don’t mean that people are policed and indicted and prosecuted by a racist system that makes some people far more likely to end up in prison than other people guilty of the same actions, although that is true, just as it’s also true that the justice system works better for the wealthy than for the poor.  I am referring rather to men (it’s mostly men) who have been wrongly convicted of crimes they simply did not commit.  I’m not even counting Guantanamo or Bagram or immigrants’ prisons.  I’m talking about the prisons just up the road, full of people from just down the road.

I don’t know whether wrongful convictions have increased as a percentage of convictions.  What has indisputably increased is the number of convictions and the lengths of sentences.  The prison population has skyrocketed.  It’s multiplied several fold.  And it’s done so during a political climate that has rewarded legislators, judges, prosecutors, and police for locking people up — and not for preventing the conviction of innocents.  This growth does not correlate in any way with an underlying growth in crime.

At the same time, evidence has emerged of a pattern of wrongful convictions.  This emerging evidence is largely the result of prosecutions during the 1980s, primarily for rape but also for murder, before DNA testing had come into its own, but when evidence (including semen and blood) was sometimes preserved.  Other factors have contributed: messy murderers, rapists who didn’t use condoms, advances in DNA science that helps to convict the guilty as well as to free the innocent, avenues for appeal that were in some ways wider before the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, and the heroic work of a relative handful of people.

An examination of the plea bargains and trials that put people behind bars ought to make clear to anyone that many of those convicted are innocent. But DNA exonerations have opened a lot of eyes to that fact. The trouble is that most convicts do not have anything that can be tested for DNA to prove their guilt or innocence. Here are 1,138 documented exonerations out of that tiny fraction of the overall prison population for which there was evidence to test. One study found that 6% of these prisoners are innocent. If you could extrapolate that to the whole population you’d be talking about 136,000 innocent people in U.S. prisons today. In the 1990s, a federal inquiry found that DNA testing, then new, was clearing 25% of primary suspects. You do the math … //

… But one of the major reforms needed is clearly a reform of attitude.  And that probably will come more quickly if we recognize what current attitudes are.  Jurors and judges should be aware of how often many prosecutors and police officers pursue conviction at the expense of the truth.  They should not prejudge in that direction any more than in the other, but they should be aware of what they are up against.  If, as a society, we valued the freedom of innocents as much as the punishment of the guilty, we would treat judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys and police differently.  We would reward protection of the innocent as much as convictions.  A “successful” prosecution would be redefined as one that, first, did no harm.  The police officer who found an alibi for a suspect would be praised and promoted just like the officer who found evidence of his guilt.  A defendant might even someday find it possible to gain representation from an attorney who at least pretended to believe in at least the possibility of his innocence, and who behaved accordingly.

In the meantime, we are generating and compounding tragedies by the thousands.  When James O’Donnell was wrongly convicted, he exploded with anger and cursed the judge and jury.  Then he composed himself and said, “I am really sorry for my outburst.  I tried to be as civil as possible.  I would never do a crime like this.  And my life is over now as I know it, my wife and kids’ life.  I don’t understand how the jury did this to me.  It’s really not right, what they did.  I was home in bed.  I was sleeping.  I would never hit a woman.  I have a wife.  I never hit my kids, ever.  I never forced a woman to do anything in my whole life.  That’s the God’s honest truth . . . It’s just — I’m very sorry for my outburst.  Don’t take my life away, please.”
(full text).

Links:

Conviction for Ex-Prime Minister: Berlusconi Has One Trick Left, on Spiegel Online International, by Hans-Jürgen Schlamp, June 24, 2013 (Photo): Silvio Berlusconi paid a minor for sex and he abused his office in order to cover it up, a Milan court ruled on Monday, sentencing Italy’s former prime minister to seven years in jail …;

Special Screening of the Documentary Film SHADOWS of LIBERTY, on Project Censored, June 7, 2013.

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