Why Would an Innocent Individual Ever Be Convicted of a Crime They Did Not Commit?
Though our system of justice is based on English Jurist William Blackstone’s premise, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer“, far too often we learn about exonerations of innocent persons who suffered convictions for crimes they didn’t commit. So, the question becomes why does our criminal justice system allow someone to suffer years in prison for a crime they did not commit?
In The Innocent Man, John Grisham‘s first book of nonfiction, he chronicles the journey of Ron Williamson through the criminal justice system. With research for his book he uncovered the reasons a person might suffer the consequences of a wrongful conviction:
“The journey also exposed me to the world of wrongful convictions, something that I, even as a former lawyer, had never spent much time thinking about. Wrongful convictions occur every month in every state in this country, and the reasons are all varied and all the same — bad police work, junk science, faulty eyewitness identifications, bad defense lawyers, lazy prosecutors, arrogant prosecutors.”
As a former police officer, a former prosecutor and now a criminal defense attorney, who also represented a client wrongfully accused of capital murder, I agree with each of the above reasons. During my eleven years of defending the accused, I have witnessed all of Grisham’s reasons as to why an innocent person might be convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
Like Grisham, I had never given much thought to the problem of wrongful convictions during my career as a police officer and prosecutor. However, representing a person who was factually innocent, yet charged with capital murder, made me realize how easy the police can build a case against an innocent person while ignoring evidence favorable to the “suspect.”
The greatest consequences of wrongful convictions involve the suffering of innocent persons. It might be easy to ignore when we have not spent much time thinking about the consequences. Michael Morton‘s book, Getting Life, should be required reading for citizens reporting for jury duty. Readers will see through his experiences the problems with false charges and the consequences they bring.
Because of a wrongful conviction Michael Morton suffered the loss of everything he had, including his son. He spent 25-years in prison for the murder of his wife while the real killer, Mark Norwood, was free to kill again. His book exposes how bad police work, junk science, faulty witness information, and an arrogant prosecutor all contributed to his wrongful conviction.
As Michael grieved for his dead wife, the police focused on him as the suspect and ignored all evidence that tended to exonerate him. Later this same evidence led to Norwood’s conviction. Not only did one innocent suffer, another family suffered the loss of their loved one at the hands of Norwood. Morton’s family suffered the loss of his wife and the horror of believing, as the police thought, that Michael could be a monster. Take just a moment and think of all the people, all the families, who suffered because the police focused on the wrong suspect; because the prosecutor was arrogant; because subsequent prosecutors failed to seek justice and blocked appeals at every turn.
It is so true when Grisham says the reason for wrongful convictions are all varied and yet all the same. We observed firsthand some of these reasons while exonerating our client on a wrongful capital murder charge. Only by finding the actual killers were we able to show prosecutors the error of their accusations against our client.