Friday, April 17, 2009

When the Innocent Pay More Dearly than the Guilty

People who know me know that I am pretty much a law and order guy. Those who have chosen to take from others, or have injured or killed others must be punished for placing themselves above their victims.  Society cannot function unless the boundaries of acceptable behavior are somehow enforced, and the consequences of stepping outside the boundaries are harsh enough to give pause.

That being said, I have found myself becoming more troubled over recent years by both the appearance that personal wealth often exacts a different sort of justice than can be routinely attained by people of modest or no means.  Equally troubling is the number of innocent persons who are convicted and imprisoned (or worse) and later exonerated.  Of course, by definition, any human endeavor will entail some margin for error, but there is reason for the ordinary person to be concerned to a degree over the number of times people who did not commit a crime are found guilty.  There have been so many stories – hundreds of them, over recent years – in which people who have served years in prison, suffered ruin to reputation and finances, lost time with family and friends, and worst of all, have been exposed to the prison environment and its’ horrors, despite being completely innocent of the crimes they’ve been convicted of committing.

Recently I read about a man who not only served years in prison for a crime he did not commit, but also died there.  The story was heartbreaking and the more I read the worse it got. 

According to a story in the Lubbock, Texas Avalanche-Journal, the judge presided over hearings on Timothy Cole’s wrongful conviction case in early February, entered an order exonerating Cole, and praising the Lubbock District Attorney of today for requesting DNA testing (though I should point out that the DA fought the request initially).  In part, speaking to Cole’s family as well as to the woman a Lubbock County jury believed Cole raped more than 20 years ago Judge Charlie Baird said:

“I want to say this with absolute clarity, that I have reviewed everything possible to review in this case,” Baird said. “The evidence is crystal clear that timothy Cole died in prison an innocent man, and I find to a 100 percent moral, legal, and factual certainty that he did not commit the crime of which he was convicted.”

The story is heartbreaking enough – a woman raped, an innocent man convicted (the judge also chastised the police for an investigation that investigation that destroyed, “downplayed or deliberately ignored” evidence Cole did not abduct and rape the woman, once they’d decided he was the guilty party), the innocent man dies in prison and the guilty man is never convicted (though he is in prison for another rape).  To me, it gets worse. 

Before the trial, Tim Coles was offered a plea which would have given him probation only – no prison time.  He refused, saying that he would not plead guilty to a crime he had not committed.  Later, when he came up for parole he similarly refused to show remorse for the crime – again saying he was innocent.  This meant that he not only served many years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, but he was there only because he refused to admit to the crime he didn’t commit.  Though he was eligible for parole, his unwillingness to accept responsibility and show remorse caused his parole to be denied.  He dies in prison of asthma.

The case illustrates something I think we should all demand of our prosecutors:  TEST THE DNA.  Far too many times people have languished in prison because the state refused to test DNA.  If the person is NOT GUILTY the state should never seek to keep them in prison.  Our society demands this in pursuit of actual justice, not just conviction records.  Second, I think we should all think long and hard about this situation, where if this man had admitted to a crime had had not committed, he would not have gone to prison, and if he’d apologized for it he’d have been paroled.  His principles ensured that an innocent man would receive a punishment much worse than a guilty man. 

I believe that police do a vital and undervalued service in our society.  I believe that they regularly do their best to serve the citizenry, and often under less than ideal circumstances.  I thank them for their service and appreciate their sacrifices.  I echo this sentiment for prosecutors.  I do hope that as cases like this where testing DNA can be done that it will be done in the public interest.

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Sunshine on Discovery Bay

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