Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Not a Good Week for Criminal Justice News in Mississippi

To date, the state of Mississippi has exonerated only one person through DNA testing. The following are some excerpts from a long interview with John Grisham, published last week in the Jackson Free Press. Grisham expresses his concerns about problems with Mississippi's postconviction laws (or lack thereof) and his hopes for positive changes advocated by the state's new Innocence Project.

Jackson Free Press, by Ronni Mott, January 9, 2008 -- It was Ron Williamson’s obituary in the Dec. 9, 2004, issue of The New York Times that caught attorney and author John Grisham’s eye.
“It had all the elements of a novel,” Grisham said in an interview with the Jackson Free Press. “The small town Southern feel to it; the small town sport hero going off to make his mark in the major leagues and failing; a grizzly murder; a wrongful conviction; a trip to death row; insanity; a near execution; exoneration; the eventual conviction of the real killer; a lawsuit to recover damages. I could not make that up, and if I did make it up, nobody would believe it. It’s too rich to pass up.”

After 11 years on Oklahoma’s death row, DNA evidence proved that Williamson was not the killer of 21-year-old Debra Carter. He and Dennis Fritz, who a jury in Ada, Okla., also convicted of the crime, walked away free men on April 15, 1999.

But for Ron Williamson, exoneration came too late; he was unable get his life back on track. His long history with drug and alcohol abuse—compounded by bipolar disease, personality disorders and a mild form of schizophrenia, all untreated during his incarceration—had taken their toll. The one-time minor-league baseball hero died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 51 on Dec. 4, 2004, less than five years after his release. At the time of his death, people mistook him for a man 30 years older, his hair prematurely white and his skin sallow around his empty, sunken eyes.

Grisham was so intrigued by the story that he spent 18 months writing his only non-fiction book to date, “The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town,” which was published in October 2006.
In January 2007, Grisham and a group of Mississippi lawyers, law professors and retired judges opened their wallets to fund the Mississippi office of the Innocence Project, now headquartered in Oxford. Until then, the Louisiana IP office was also helping with Mississippi cases.

“We just all came together at one time with some other attorneys who were willing to write checks,” Grisham said. “The law school at Ole Miss got on board quickly; the university got behind it.”

In Mississippi, before the Innocence Project can make meaningful strides correcting wrongful prosecutions and convictions, the laws have to change.
The task is daunting. In Mississippi, once a defendant’s trial is over and he—it’s usually a man, a black man—receives a sentence, the deck is stacked against him. Reflecting the state’s long, sad history of racism, Mississippi has no laws on the books requiring courts to preserve evidence, no laws that allow defendants access to post-conviction DNA testing, no laws that require police to record interrogations, and on the slim chance of exoneration, no laws to compensate defendants for the lost years of their lives.
Today, Mississippi also lacks forensic oversight, leaving the door wide open for the introduction of junk science and forensic “experts” without proper certification. The top position, a board-certified medical examiner, is mandated by state law, but the Legislature has failed to fund the position, leaving coroners and district attorneys leeway to shop for autopsy results from “their favorite medical examiners,” reported in November 2007. Those examiners, such as Steven Hayne, whose testimony the state Supreme Court recently threw out in the case of Tyler Edmonds, inordinately tend to favor the prosecutors, who can afford to pay for their testimony.

Read the entire article.

No comments: