Monday, April 2, 2018

Play ball!

In 1994, Antwinica Bridgeman disappeared after attending a party for her 20th birthday. Her body was found two weeks later by Nevest Colemen in the abandoned basement of the where he lived with his family. His mother called the police.

The police focused in on Mr. Coleman, a groundkeeper for the Chicago White Sox, and Darryl Fulton. There was no physical evidence linking either to the crime.

Both men eventually confessed after being questioned by police detectives with a history of allegations of misconduct and coerced confessions. Both men later recanted.

Despite the lack of physical evidence, the men were convicted in 1997 of raping and killing Ms. Bridgeman and were both sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors sought the death penalty for Mr. Coleman, despite him having no criminal record. After a parade of character witnesses, including some from the White Sox, the jury declined to recommend execution.

On Monday, Mr. Coleman returned to his job as a groundskeeper at what is now called Guaranteed Rate Field on Chicago's South Side. He and Mr. Fulton were exonerated last November after DNA testing revealed the semen from a serial rapist on Ms. Bridgeman's underwear.

The exonerations are just two out of more than 160 from Cook County alone - a number that dwarfs most states.

Why wasn't the DNA tested back in 1997? Was it a decision by the defense not to have it tested or was it the prosecutor's decision? I don't know. If the defense chose not to have it tested, that would have been a justifiable decision attempting to maintain reasonable doubt. If the choice not to test was the state's, then there is little or no justification for it.

Whichever the case may be, once the DNA was tested two more names were added to the long list of men and women who have served decades behind bars for crimes they didn't commit.

We are kidding ourselves if we think our jury system is the best method to determine the truth of what really happened. The courtroom isn't so much the crucible for determining the truth as it is a theater of the absurd. Countless times juries have found people guilty on little or no evidence because they thought the prosecution had proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt only to find out that they were wrong. Regardless of how many times a prospective juror tells you they can presume your client innocent unless proven otherwise, their real attitude is that your client wouldn't be sitting next to you if he hadn't done something wrong. Add that to the courts and prosecutors telling jurors what beyond a reasonable doubt isn't (which serves to lower the state's burden of proof) and you have a recipe for false convictions.

And then there's the death penalty. Prosecutors sought it against Mr. Coleman. In an era in which the scab has been pulled off the criminal (in)justice system, it never ceases to amaze me how many folks still argue in favor of capital punishment. Ironically enough, a great many of those folks also fall into the camp of never believing what the government tells them.

Innocent people have been executed and innocent people have lost decades of their lives in prison because twelve people sitting in a box either failed to do their legal duty or just got it wrong. Mr. Coleman lost both of his parents while he was locked up for a crime he didn't commit and he missed watching his own children grow up. Nothing can ever make up for his losses.

h/t Dan Wetzel

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