The Pathos of Politics (114-2) Wrongful Convictions

Wrongful Convictions

The supreme court’s recent emphasis on shielding public officials and federal and local law enforcement means many individuals who suffer a constitutional deprivation will have no redress. ~ American jurist Jack Weinstein

The 21st-century Republican supreme court has seen fit to deny appeal (habeas corpus) to prisoners who were wrongly convicted, and to deny that prosecutors and police be held accountable for brutality and injustice.

The collapse of habeas corpus as a remedy for even the most glaring of constitutional violations ranks among the greater wrongs of our legal era. Habeas corpus has been transformed over the past two decades from a vital guarantor of liberty into an instrument for ratifying the power of state courts to disregard the protections of the constitution. Along with so many other judicial tools meant to safeguard the powerless, enforce constitutional rights, and hold the government accountable, habeas has been slowly eroded by a series of recent supreme court rulings that aim ultimately at eliminating that judicial method of protecting individual rights. Understand that most of our current habeas law is the product of choices, many of them seriously ill-advised, made by a deeply conservative Court. ~ American jurist Stephen Reinhardt

It is impossible to know the number of wrongful convictions for any country, as they are discovered only after excruciating effort and a plaint court admitting its mistake; but the known numbers are chilling. In the US, over 4% (1 in 25) of defendants sentenced to death in the US were wrongfully convicted. There were at least 3.2 wrongful felony convictions per week in 2016.

Those numbers are surely far lower than actuality, as they represent only those wrongly convicted which the court reluctantly recognized; not those wrongly convicted who could not manage to chart a recourse.

Most of those accused cannot afford to defend themselves, and so take the deal that a district attorney offers. This is especially common in misdemeanor cases.

The mean time served for exonerated felons is 14 years. Many spend several decades rotting in prison before the evil of a vile system comes undone.

Most wrongfully convicted are stuck with their dismal fate. In the US, millions are behind bars only for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for having the wrong personal contacts; or, more simply, for awry court management.

Courts use software to keep track of those of who entered the criminal system and the status of their cases. Errors are so common that several hundreds of people a day are arrested and charged because of incomplete or wrong data entry coupled to a faulty computer program that turns innocent people into criminals by facilely flipping bits.

In Brady v. Maryland (1963), the supreme court decreed that prosecutors must disclose all evidence favorable to the accused. Since then, in 75% of cases resulting in exoneration, prosecutors were found responsible for the wrongful convictions.

Unlike public defenders and court-appointed attorneys, prosecutors have all the funds and resources needed to do their job. Wrongful convictions do not stem from a lack of wherewithal. Instead, they emanate from base immorality and lack of accountability.

A big problem with prosecutors is that they get vested in winning rather than in what is right. ~ American district attorney Sarah Wolf

Prosecutors operate under absolute immunity. In failing to own up to their mistakes, and covering them up when necessary, prosecutors protect their own careers. They do so at the cost of others’ lives.

Within the past decade the sense that wrongful convictions regularly occur, that they result from structural flaws in the criminal justice system, has gained a foothold in the legal and criminal justice communities. ~ American professor of criminal justice Marvin Zalman in 2012

In the years since Marvin Zalman’s study, little has been done to improve the American criminalization system: the state continues to inflict untold unjust harm.

◊ ◊ ◊

Recompense for exoneration varies by state. 19 states do not make amends for their grievous mistakes. The illicitly convicted must try to claw some compensation through civil litigation: an expensive and seldom successful process.

Of the 31 states which provide compensation for wrongful conviction, payments vary considerably. Texas pays $80,000 for every year incarcerated. Meanwhile, miserly Wisconsin shells out only $5,000 per annum for being unethically parked in prison.