The American InJustice System Part I

People already talk extensively about how the rich can buy a favorable verdict in our justice system (which, I expect, is true of every legal system in the world (where 'rich' may be defined as other than monetary wealth)) and recently there has been seemingly endless commentary about the uneven expression of justice when celebrities are involved, but I would like to discuss the injustice of the innocent caught in our system. First, I believe it is clear that in most, if not all, cases, prosecutors are only interested in winning, not in truth. Clearly defense attorneys are only interested in winning and I believe have an ethical mandate to even lie in the service of their clients, but I do not believe that the same ethics should be applied by the prosecutors and police. There are many cases where people are bullied into false confessions that lead directly to convictions, where is the truth in that?

Lets examine the case where ordinary people who cannot afford a million-dollar defense team get caught up in the system. If they are actually guilty, then the smart play is to plea bargain for a more minor charge with a smaller sentence, serve their time and get on with things. If they are innocent, then they might be expected to believe that truth will win out and that a jury trial will exonerate them. Instead, what we seem to find is that the innocent are routinely convicted on the flimsiest of evidence (or no evidence whatsoever as happens many times) and are sentenced to maximums on the most severe charges. Then they are denied parole (presuming it is even offered) because they refuse to accept responsibility or show remorse for the crimes they didn't commit. What sort of 'justice' is that?

It seems ironic to me that a career criminal can brutally murder someone (say they only leaving equivocal evidence) and plea bargain their way to a minimal sentence, yet the same case (again with no damning evidence), if prosecuted against an innocent person who stupidly believes in the system, gets life or even the death sentence. I can sympathize with the concept that it is cheaper to plea bargain than to have a trial, but that is in effect punishing innocent people who refuse to bargain (they didn't do it, how can they admit to it?) and have the full weight of the sentence imposed on them. I am sure there are some guilty people who opt for a full trial as a way to extend their day in the sun or on a long-shot gamble, but why should the innocent believe they should be treated worse than the career criminal?

Public defenders, the ones most likely to be representing the ordinary people who cannot afford the million dollar defense, often have many cases to work at the same time and generally have few resources for investigating, testing or expert witnesses. Certainly to get any additional resources they have to petition the court for those resources decreasing the likelihood of 1) even bothering asking and 2) actually being granted. So there is a massive disconnect between the resources brought to bear upon the trial of the ordinary person (innocent or guilty). The state, through the prosecutor, has a full-time staff of experienced detectives, access to crime scene investigators, not to mention a staff of paralegal and support lawyers. The public defender has him or her self and presumably a burning sense of idealism (maybe at the beginning, anyway). Add to this the regular reports of prosecutors concealing evidence that might exonerate the accused (how come so few of these situations result in lengthy jail sentences? Even Nifong, disbarred AND convicted criminally, serves but a day) how can anyone (innocent or guilty) expect a fair trial. Add to this the confounding element mentioned above that the experienced career criminal will bargain while the innocent refuse to.

Is there a credible, economical way to address these issues? If the guilty do not have the incentive of a lighter sentence then they have no interest in forgoing the trial where at least there is a small chance of acquittal. If the innocent are railroaded into a guilty plea the justice system completely turns their back on them insisting that no innocent person would ever do so, yet if their prospects of acquittal are bleak they might be ill served by any suggestion that they trust the system. Since humans are such excellent liars it is impossible to know for sure if one is guilty or innocent, yet the innocent have the system so carefully stacked against them that it seems that something needs to be done. If you are lucky enough to stay out of the grasp of the system all is fine and dandy, but if you get caught up by investigators that don't care to find any other suspect when they have a nicely packaged one in yourself and the prosecution thinks that they can easily prevail on the public defender, particularly if they leave out some critical bits of evidence, essentially you are helpless and your life is destroyed. How is that just?

I watched an 'interesting' case of what I consider prosecutorial misconduct:

In the shadow of justice: The Palladium murder

The prosecutor failed to turn over all evidence to the defense and the defense (almost certainly a public defender, I can't see anyone getting paid by the defendant being this incompetent) didn't call a single witness. The only (and I mean only) thing connecting the two guys charged, convicted and stuck in jail for 14 years, was being picked out of a lineup. Not the tiniest shred of physical evidence and other than one of the guys being dumb enough to lie and say he did it to his girlfriend to impress her (which, btw, he failed to do when she was wearing a wire, something also not disclosed to the defense), not even any statements by the defendants. Indeed, the first time the two ever met was when they went on trial together. Even after a judge threw out the convictions and complaining about a miscarriage of justice, the DA still decided to retry the 'shooter' (the other had by then been released and promptly deported to his home country). Fortunately, this time he had a really good defense team and the jury acquitted.

Moral of this story: NEVER talk to the cops, NEVER agree to a lineup. They can and will use whatever you say against you, even if it has nothing to do with the crime they are investigating.

Copyright 2009 by Keith Oxenrider