Today in the New York Daily News there was an article about a young man from Georgia who spent 17 months in the Rikers jail waiting for a robbery trial. The man was arrested for a robbery of a New York jewelry store. At the time of the robbery the man was living in Georgia with his girlfriend and enrolled in a cooking school. A detective mistakenly misidentified his fingerprints causing the U.S. Marshall’s Office to arrest him in Georgia and extradite him to New York in spite of his protests that he was innocent and not in New York at the time of the robbery. His court appointed lawyer had recommended a guilty plea but the man would not plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. Shortly before the trial a new detective was examining the evidence when he noticed the fingerprints were not the accused’s fingerprints. Imagine, 17 months in trial waiting for trial for a crime you did not commit. Think about telling everyone around you “I didn’t do it” and the skeptical looks you would get from the jailers, other inmates, and possibly even friends. Remember the phrase from Shaw Shank Redemption, the movie with Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. It was the scene where they were talking out in the yard of the prison and Morgan Freeman says to Tim Robbins everyone in prison was innocent. It must be frightening to be innocent and see that all around you no one will believe you. It is something of a nightmare that reminds me of a George Orwell novel and the Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who.
In the past 5 years I am personally aware of at least 4 serious cases in Mississippi where people spent from 18-22 years in jail, one on death row, for crimes they did not commit. Read what I said again. These men were convicted and sent to jail for crimes THEY DID NOT COMMIT. Sadly, one of the biggest problems is eye witness identification and the suggestibility of witnesses and victims of crime to improper police comments and beliefs about who the police think did it. Eye witness testimony is the most common testimony but it has now been scientifically shown to be terribly unreliable.
Another problem is this attitude in the public that the “criminals have all the rights.” This catch phrase started in the early 1980’s as a convenient political tool to frighten and mislead voters. It was successfully used for the next almost 20 years. As an attorney working with criminal cases and serious injury cases over the past 29 years, I can tell you and promise you, that the American Legal System is hard and crushes down on the people that go through the system. There may be an occasional case that make the news, such as a person being released on parole who commits another crime. Or a case where the police violate the Bill of Rights and evidence is suppressed by the Court, but those cases are few nationwide. They seem greater than they are because that is the type of news that media outlets like to present. Something gone wrong, even if it rarely happens, makes good news. The cases of the hundreds of men and women who are wrongfully convicted each year is not big news. It makes the news usually one time and then is over. After all, the attitude seems to be: “what’s the big deal about a mistake.” However, a human error letting someone our of prison who later commits a crime is worth pages and pages of stories. Bad news sells, good news and human interest stories are for church. Isn’t that the way it seems to go? We live in a big world. I hate to say it, but you know it is true; there is going to be crime not matter what we do as a society. What we need to do is learn to distinguish between who needs to be in jail and who doesn’t, and we need to try to be less cynical. I said before in this blog that a early U.S. Supreme Court Judge wrote: “It is better that 10 guilty people go free, then we make a mistake and send 1 innocent person to prison.” In the last two decades I have come to believe that people no longer believe this statement. Think about it for 10 minutes. Then, consider you are that 1 innocent person facing prison like the man in this article from Georgia. What do you say now?
Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.