When accused of a crime in the United States, you are considered “innocent until proven guilty”. Yet it astonishes me how many people are convicted and incarcerated for crimes they did NOT commit.
It is an injustice to let a guilty person go free. It is also an injustice to impose penalties on an innocent person for a crime they did not commit. Recognizing that errors can and will be made, “innocent until proven guilty” by default favors allowing some who are guilty to go free, rather than risk incarcerating the innocent. There is no greater injustice than punishing the innocent.
In June 2017, Charles Robins was released off death row in Nevada, after 29 years in prison, when DNA evidence provided proof of his innocence. In March 2014, Glenn Ford was released off death row in Louisiana after 30 years in prison, when DNA evidence proved his innocence. Anthony Ray Hilton was released in April 2015 after 28 years on death row in an Alabama prison once evidence provided proof of his innocence. Hilton was the 152nd person to be exonerated from death row in the United States since 1973!
And these are just the death penalty cases. How many thousands or 10s of thousands more are convicted of lessor offenses and remain behind bars, or paid fines just to end a nightmare segment of their life, yet never committed the crimes of which they were accused?
A major reason for wrongful convictions is corrupt district attorney offices across our country. More often than not, a district attorney is pressured to convict, instead of find truth. Like everyone, a district attorney seeks career advancement, and the way they do that is through more convictions and winning cases, regardless of the truth of guilt or innocence.
When the system itself encourages district attorneys to win at all costs to the detriment of finding truth, justice is thrown to the wind. In 2011, right here in Colorado according to the Denver Post, Arapahoe County district attorney Carol Chambers even went so far as to pay her attorneys to hit conviction targets.
Such incentives in the system encourage district attorneys to get “creative” with evidence, to withhold evidence that would exonerate the accused, and to otherwise become corrupt. Justice be damned! They will instead go for the money and career advancement!
Another reason the innocent find themselves paying for crimes they did not commit has to do with the juries themselves. Many jurors do not understand what it means to be innocent until proven guilty.
I saw a news report years ago of an elderly juror who admitted after the trial that she did not believe the accused committed the crime. She voted “guilty” anyway because she felt that the person “must have done something wrong or they would not have been in court to begin with.” I don’t know what happened after that trial, but I do hope the defense attorney used her comments as a basis for a mistrial.
To ensure that “innocent until proven guilty” remains the overriding principle of our system of justice in criminal cases, district attorneys AND the jury should pay the price that was wrongfully imposed on the innocent they convicted!
If a wrongfully convicted person spends 28 years behind bars, the district attorney and their jury should have to spend that same time in prison. Again, there is no greater injustice than wrongfully, and sometimes willingly, punishing the innocent!
Too many district attorneys and jury members take their responsibility to find truth too lightly. In a rush to quickly move past a trial and move on with their careers and lives, the attorneys and juries convict. There are no consequences for their wrong actions!
Only by having a price for wrongful convictions can we ensure the attorneys and jury seek truth instead of convictions. They will want to ensure that in fact, the accused committed the crime, and that all evidence lines up, out of concern they will end up paying the same price if they are wrong. In other words, the rest of us can be assured their belief in guilt will be truly “beyond a reasonable doubt”.