Righting awful wrongs

Last week I related the story of Ron Williamson’s wrongful murder conviction in Oklahoma, before being exonerated by DNA. Williamson was the subject of John Grisham’s first nonfiction book, The Innocent Man. Despite being utterly innocent, Williamson missed lethal injection by a mere five days.

The automatic appeals and slow pace of capital cases help prevent wrongful executions. But wrongful convictions of lesser crimes occur at normal speed among the throng of criminal cases clogging the courts.

Most exoneration efforts are targeted at murder and rape cases and concentrated in a few populous states, so there are no accurate figures on the total number of wrongly convicted persons. Data can be extrapolated, however, from existing research–and the scope is frightening. Research into death-sentence exonerations indicates an innocence rate as high as 3 to 5 percent.

Incidents of being wrongly accused are bound to occur. The challenge for the justice system when that happens is to attempt to ensure, as much as possible, that the legal process exonerates the innocent instead of wrongly convicting them.

An American University study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, sought to analyze why some innocent defendants are convicted and others are acquitted. Researchers identified 260 cases from 1980-2012 in which an innocent defendant was convicted but later exonerated. Those cases were matched with 200 other cases in which an innocent defendant was either acquitted or charges were dropped.

What they learned was a small set of variables often came into play in either helping or hurting people who are wrongly accused. Several were negative factors in Williamson’s case.

Weakness of prosecution’s case. The case against Williamson was circumstantial and flimsy.

Untruthful informants. Two witnesses lied in placing Williamson at the crime scene; one was a jailhouse snitch, and the other was the real killer.

Forensic error. Testimony involving hair recovered at the scene was misleading if not outright deceitful.

Tunnel vision. Once police zeroed in on Williamson, they simply didn’t keep their eyes or minds open. In retrospect, the blinders on investigators seem unbelievable.

Inadequate defense. Despite significant evidence of mental instability, Williamson’s attorney failed to raise competency issues.

The identification of powerful factors provides a good framework for reforms that can help our justice system reduce the number of wrongly convicted. Law enforcement organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police have publicly embraced recommendations to prevent erroneous charges.

Many local departments are implementing practices such as improved lineup procedures to remove bias, improved investigation protocols to prevent tunnel vision, and improved interview policies (like recording all interrogations) to better validate informant testimonies and confessions.

Law-and-order proponents, both liberal or conservative, commonly have deep compassion for innocent victims of violent crime. Those victims’ voices often go unheard; their suffering often slips off the radar amid polarized and politicized arguments over the causes, rates and solutions of crime.

But the wrongly convicted are also innocent victims, and their plight is perhaps the most obscured because of cultural lethargy regarding the presumption of innocence, which must be sacrosanct to protect the liberty of all.

In a 2013 survey sponsored by the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, an alarming 67 percent of respondents said the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” was being lost in our legal system. In a telling tidbit, the rate of concern was identical between Republicans and Democrats.

Unless you read a book like The Innocent Man, the notion of being wrongly accused, convicted and almost executed probably seems surreal to the point of impossibility in most people’s minds. Grisham chronicled the psychological trauma of going to prison for a crime you didn’t commit in highly evocative fashion.

Try to empathize with the shattered faith in American justice; the eternal disconnect between “official” and “truth;” the unrelenting paranoia stemming from an irreconcilable unreality. You know you are innocent, but the whole world condemns you as guilty.

Wrongly convicted victims endure a reality the rest of us cannot conceive. Tragically, their victimization continues once they’re exonerated, because legislative action hasn’t kept up when it comes to “making things right” for wrongly convicted victims.

They should receive compensation, but only 27 states offer any, though all ought to. Many times (as in Williamson’s case) police and prosecutors don’t even offer an apology.

They should never have to answer “yes” on employment form questions about arrests or convictions. There should be training programs to bring them up to speed with changes in society while they were wrongly imprisoned.

There should be treatment programs to help them heal the mental scars left from living in perilous prison environments that would traumatize any of us.

What we as a society can never really do is give back the life lost to exonerees. We cannot erase the unwarranted stigma, or banish the unjust prejudice, that may follow them forever. Knowing that, we should darn well bend over backwards trying.

It’s to our collective shame that here in Arkansas, we’re not—at least not yet.