Monday, May 18, 2009

The value of finality

One of the systemic problems contributing to the problem of wrongful incarceration – besides wrongful convictions in the first place – is a fierce reluctance by the system and its constituents to overturn previous convictions. This is what we casually refer to as the value of finality. Courts are afraid of getting 'bogged down' with every claim of innocence or procedural error, so much so that they create daunting procedural hurdles to having an appeal heard. Add to that the resistance from prosecutors and DAs who are afraid of losing face when it is revealed that they had convicted the wrong person. A picture of the difficulty facing innocent imprisoned now beings to take shape.

Two articles came out just now, in the New York Times and USA Today that are related to this attitude that stands in the way of justice post-conviction. The New York Times' A1 story discusses prosecutors' reluctance to grant DNA testing:

A recent analysis of 225 DNA exonerations by Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, found that prosecutors opposed DNA testing in almost one out of five cases. In many of the others, they initially opposed testing but ultimately agreed to it. In 98 of those 225 cases, the DNA test identified the real culprit.
I find this particularly insulting:
In Illinois, prosecutors have opposed a DNA test for Johnnie Lee Savory, convicted of committing a double murder when he was 14, on the grounds that a jury was convinced of his guilt without DNA and that the 175 convicts already exonerated by DNA were “statistically insignificant.” (emphasis mine)
Says the New York Times, "Defense lawyers also say the arguments ignore the proven power of DNA to refute almost every other type of evidence." I'm not sure what the "almost" refers to, unless it is, say, an autographed and notarized picture of the defendant committing the crime.

Also today, USA Today ran a story on A3 about Troy Davis. Davis has been on death row for 18 years, though the case against him has since collapsed. Simply put, the State is unwilling to grant Davis a new trial just because he has already been convicted once.
Davis' attorneys and advocates for the wrongfully convicted say his case, set for another U.S. Supreme Court appeal this week, represents one of possibly dozens in which courts are reluctant to consider evidence discovered after conviction that might exonerate inmates on death row.
Davis' stay of execution ran out on Saturday. You can visit Amnesty International's page on Davis here.

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