Friday, January 12, 2018

When winning is the only thing

This month's cover story in Slate is about three prosecutors who kept pushing and refusing to give up the fight against men who were proven innocent. The stories and circumstances are all different but the story in each case is equally chilling.

In an adversarial system, both prosecutors and defense attorneys are trying to win their case. The theory (faulty at best) is that through the crucible of a trial, the facts will come out and a jury made up of local citizens will be able to determine whether or not a crime occurred.

Nice in theory - but that's not how it works in real life. In many cases of exoneration there are items with biological material that were never tested. In the end when this evidence was tested the results proved that someone else committed the crime. The items weren't tested in the original proceeding because the defense attorney would be taking a big gamble in having the tests carried out. Let's think about it, we all assume the worse case scenario for our clients. If there is a rag, or a shirt or some other item with blood or other bodily fluid on it, it's often better to hold up that evidence as an example of reasonable doubt. You see, jurors, the state didn't test it because they didn't want to know their theory of the case was wrong. If the defense attorney asks for the items to be tested and they don't exclude her client, now that's a serious problem.

Thanks to our modern day love fest with all things police, and the right-wing "Blue Lives Matter" campaign, jurors come into the courthouse believing that the police are all hard-working servants of the people who are honorable and would never coerce a confession or tamper with evidence. In truth, as we all know, once the police hone in on a suspect, everything they do is geared toward proving that person committed the crime - and if the evidence doesn't fit that model then it never gets mentioned.

As a result, innocent people get convicted. They get convicted of traffic offenses, they get convicted of petty crimes, they get convicted of heinous crimes.

These men and women serve years behind bars. Their lives are destroyed. Their families are torn apart. And then, if they get lucky, when evidence demonstrating their innocence is prevented, the courts and prosecutors continue to fight to keep them behind bars. It's almost as if admitting that a mistake was made would cause the entire system to collapse upon itself.

Of course I prefer to think that it would shine some light on the problems with our criminal (in)justice system. It would be a good thing for jurors to walk into the courthouse a little more skeptical than they are now.

But that's another story for another day.

While prosecutors and defense attorneys fight to win cases, the duty of the attorneys is different. The duty of a criminal defense attorney is to defend his or her client by all means possible. But a prosecutor has a different task. While the prosecutor's goal is to win, because of the power the state has to take away a person's life or liberty, the prosecutor must temper their goal to win with the duty to see that justice is done. And sometimes that duty means having to stand up and say we got it wrong this time.

That is a quality that the prosecutors mentioned in this article did not demonstrate. Their primary concern was to win, justice be damned.

1 comment:

Lee said...

I always thought that the reason defense attorneys don't have the evudence tested at the first trial was because the technology was not available back then, the prosecution hid the evidence or per sloppy defense lawyering. I always thought that there was no logical reason why any defense lawyer would not want evidence tested as it was crutial to holding the prosecution to its correct burden of proof & make sure the correct defendant is in the courtroom. I am not sure that I understand why that is. If you test the evidence & it exonerates your client then they go free but if it comes back to incriminate your client, you are doing your job as ensuring that the prosecutor meets its burden or proof & we have the right defendant.