Tuesday, July 14, 2009

No One's Life is Expendable

When I became aware of the issue of exonerees last year, I was convinced initially that it was an isolated incident. As a matter of fact, the story of Charles Chatman, the first exoneree of whom I became aware, was 'white noise' for me on the newscast the day of his release.

Of course now we know that Chatman is one of 20 in Dallas county and more than 200 nationwide, who through DNA evidence or some other discovery has been found innocent. The 200 across the nation means that Texas, although it leads the nation in exonerated prisoners, is not by itself.

Sunday evening's 60 Minutes profiled yet another DNA case which helps us to know that this kind of thing happens all too often for any of us to be comfortable.

Watch CBS Videos Online

In Illinois the latest members of this fraternity are Marvin Reeves and Ronald Kitchens, both of whom served 20 years incarcerated for a murder they didn't commit.

""It hasn't really hit me yet. It's surreal," Kitchen said after the Illinois attorney general's office dismissed charges in the allegedly drug-related 1988 murders of two women and their three children on the Southwest Side."

"Kitchen, who said he was forced to confess by an underling of disgraced former Chicago Police Detective Cmdr. Jon Burge, was originally sentenced to death, and Reeves had been been serving five life terms without parole."

""If you're getting whooped for over 39 hours and you're constantly saying that you didn't do it and they're constantly doing what they're doing, somewhere along the line you're going to realize they're not going to stop unless somebody gives in," Kitchen said."

""I gave in hoping that the judge and the jury would see that, 'Hey, he's telling the truth.' But it didn't happen that way. It took 20 years.""

"Illinois Assistant Attorney General Richard Schwind told Criminal Court Presiding Judge Paul Biebel on Tuesday that after an exhaustive review of both cases, the office determined it could not "sustain its burden of proof.""

"Officials with the attorney general's office would not comment on whether any other suspects have been identified."

Obviously there are some systemic issues involved. Addressing those issues is critical. Failure to do so involves devastating lives, disrupting families and delaying justice.

The case regarding Mr. Kitchen and Mr. Reeves, brings to light another issue with the matter of justice. DNA evidence played no role in their exoneration, and as time goes by will play less and less a role in liberating those who have been mistakenly and falsely incarcerated. As Alan Bean points out in his blog, "Unfortunately, the era of post-conviction DNA exonerations is drawing to a close. In Dallas County, for instance, most of the old DNA evidence has already been tested. Without a steady supply of exoneration stories the wrongful conviction issue will fade from public awareness."

"The only solution is for groups like Friends of Justice to intervene at the pre-conviction stage in actual cases where the building blocks of wrongful conviction are clearly on display. We can’t say the guy is innocent with absolute certainty; but we can argue persuasively that the State is gunning for a conviction in a case built on shakey eye witness testimony and circumstantial evidence."

Bills introduced in the 81st Texas Legislature meant to address the issues that lead to false identification in live and photograph line-ups, failed to become law. It will take strong public outcry, not just to right the wrongs that have already taken place, but to do all within the power of our legal system to make sure they don't happen again.

Happy endings are possible for those whose lives have been so unfairly disrupted as crime victims - and by crime victims, I mean those who have been victimized by a criminal and those who have been erroneously accused of that crime. But those happy endings would be unnecessary if we insisted on laws that eliminated as many flaws as possible from faulty eyewitness testimony and the tendency to rush to judgement.

Incarcerating the wrong person is costly. I don't know of anyone whose life should be considered disposable.

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