Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Quiet Embarrassment Of Innocence

Two days ago death row exoneree John Thompson's chilling summary of his life as a "guilty" man appeared in the New York Times. His $14 million verdict tossed by the U.S. Supreme Court, he made clear his real question:

I don’t care about the money. I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn’t do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued.

He also notes, by the way, that: Of the six men one of my prosecutors got sentenced to death, five eventually had their convictions reversed because of prosecutorial misconduct.

Instead of blogging about Mr. Thompson's well-written piece, I watched. I wanted to see who would make his words news.

Here, take a look. Notice any of the mainstream media linking to the article? No. $14 million is a story, putting a real person in front of that verdict, well, that's for some bloggers.

When the $14 million verdict was overturned, that story made news. While the online commenters were mostly outraged at the conduct of the prosecutors, the resident, and anonymous of course, "everyone's guilty crowd couldn't resist:

People aren't picked at random off the streets and charged with crimes. He had to do something or have some connection to rise to the level of becoming a suspect. Posted by: mtn1man 2:28 PM

As someone who sits on committees with prosecutors and judges, I can tell you that the topic of innocence is annoying to some. I think we need to be discussing innocence more, while others believe it's nothing more than a "distraction" from our continued efforts to imprison more people than any other country in the world. When an innocent person is convicted, and even sentenced to death, only to be later (oops) exonerated, it creates a suspicion of the system that gets in the way of prosecuting everyone else.

Right now in Florida there is a bill in the legislature to make the photo lineup process more fail safe. It calls for a blind administrator, someone who doesn't know which one may be the suspect. It helps, if done correctly, to prevent suggestive identifications. That bill is opposed by law enforcement, who always use the "don't you trust us" argument in testimony before legislative committees. As Ronald Reagan said - "trust, but verify."

There's also discussion of jury instructions that advise jurors of the significance of eyewitness identification - in the sense that it is not always a sure thing.

Prosecutors don't like it. They "believe" it will cause witnesses to be reluctant to make identifications of suspects.

The only way we guarantee no innocent person is murdered by the government, is to abolish the death penalty. The only way we firm up our eyewitness identification process, is to put in to our system a protective process for identification and jury instructions that cause jurors to make sure they closely evaluate such evidence.

John Thompson is just one person. There are many others. There will continue to be others, no matter how embarrassed we are about their innocence.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter