Monday, January 29, 2007

Reconsidering Liberty and Justice For All: The Innocent Behind Bars

The United States Bill of Rights was formed to provide every citizen of this country with inalienable rights that need always be enforced and respected. Each person is entitled to be treated fairly, justly, and according to proper law and principle, symbolized by the justice scale to the left. The U.S. justice system is thus probed with the difficult task of condemning the guilty. Yet, how accurate can our justice system be at ensuring the conviction of those truly culpable? The very laws afforded to protect the citizens of this country are condemning the innocent and making the system unreliable and fraudulent. “The land of opportunity, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is quickly becoming the land of poorly and unjustly executed criminal cases. Ann Fecteau, experienced the effects of an unjust system firsthand, and discloses the abysmal words her boyfriends public defender said to him; "its not about justice anymore, its about money and power and you don’t have either one! Your case is a very strong one but without representation you wont win.” Sadly, this trend can be seen all over the country, every day inmates petition for the opportunity to be exonerated for crimes they did not commit.

One of the leading causes of wrongful convictions can be attributed to erroneous eyewitness identifications. These accounts are considered compelling evidence that the prosecution and jury rely heavily upon in both civil and criminal trials. However, research reveals that this kind of testimony is greatly fallible. Dr. Edmund Higgins, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine & psychiatry investigated the injustice of wrongful convictions from 1997 to 2003. He feels that “authorities in the criminal justice system make no effort to collect, organize and review their mistakes.” His research found 360 innocent people convicted of a crime and sentenced to life in prison due to eyewitness identifications. Although this tool is prevalently used in criminal cases and within law enforcement, it is imperative to note that continued psychological research in the area shows that it is inaccurate at least 50% of the time. So, what hope is there for an innocent inmate to be acquitted if a victimized person is convinced they accuse the right person?

Recent technological advancements such as DNA testing are valuable tools in acquitting the innocent. The Innocence Project has tracked more than 100 cases of DNA proving innocence of wrongfully convicted criminals. On January 19, 2007, DNA evidence cleared Atlanta resident, Willie O. “Pete” Williams, who was convicted of rape in 1985 principally on eyewitness accounts. A woman claimed Williams had threatened her with a gun in a parking lot, the attack then proceeded in a dead end street by an apartment complex in Sandy Springs, where he allegedly raped the victim. While in the witness stand she assured the jurors and the prosecutors that she was "120% sure Williams was her attacker." Now, 21 years later, the Innocence Project has intervened in the case and is looking to conduct the proper court proceedings to set Williams free. Although the DNA test demonstrate his innocence, a judge must still review the case and take the new evidence into account.

In a similar case, Marlon Pendleton (seen to the left) was sent to prison on an account of rape in 1992 and was vindicated through DNA testing in November 2006. Pendleton was identified in a line up. The victim had seen the authorities lead Pendleton to the line up in handcuffs and became convinced he was her attacker. In 2002 the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences posted a research study entitled; Accuracy and Qualities of Real and Suggested Memories which touches upon the high power of suggestion of certain line-up techniques. The Pendleton case serves as an example, where the eyewitness observing the suspect in handcuffs generated a constructed memory. Although the DNA test results completely exclude Pendleton as the rapist, the victim holds her ground. When informed of the suspects exoneration she said, “I still stand strong. No one was in that dark alley with me, only Jesus and this person. There is a certainty, sir, and I am standing on that." In this way victims make themselves believe that those whom they convict are the real offenders, without taking into consideration that their mental states are agitated and disturbed while an attack occurs and there is room for error in what they “witness.”

The system cannot be perfect, however taking into account how potent eyewitness identifications are in our legal system, and the rate at which they demonstrate fallacy, one can only approximate how many more innocent people remain behind bars. According to the Justice Department, as of November 30, 2006, 7 million people or one in every 32 American adults were behind bars, on probation or on parole by the end 2005 and of those, 2.2 million were in prison or jai. With these disturbing statistics, one can only wonder what part of the population of millions imprisoned fall under the group of unfortunate beings whose lives are disrupted by our failing justice system.

After years of false imprisonment, one’s life can be more challenging. When an innocent person is given a verdict of life in prison, sometimes without parole, trust in the justice system may be lost. Family members vanish not only due to biological circumstances but through free-will. A distancing occurs, friends and remaining relatives visit less and less. Marlon Pendleton’s unfortunate wrongful incarceration prevented him from attending his mother’s funeral or being with her during her dying hours. Dr. Higgins states the reality of what the exonerated encounter, “the typical wrongfully convicted innocent is quietly released, with no ceremony, or apology, or assurance that a similar mistake may be prevented in the future.” People’s freedom is being taken away with the continued use of a technique that has incessantly been proven flawed; it is time our justice system truly begins practicing justice.