Archived Story

When the courts fail, we all lose

Published 10:04am Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Column: Pothole Prairie

Boy, there sure have been a lot of things that have made me doubt the justice system lately.

Look at the Troy Davis case. Georgia punished a man with the death penalty in a case where many of the witnesses had recanted their testimony in sworn affidavits, saying they were coerced by police to testify against Davis. And there had been new evidence against an alternative suspect.

The problem with the death penalty is it assumes the justice system is flawless, but it is run by professionals who sometimes are swayed by the same human emotions and motives the rest of us are. And sometimes, they want revenge for the death of a police officer, even if it is the wrong man, even if the U.S. Supreme Court urged a lower court to reconsider new evidence. That’s the fate that fell upon Troy Anthony Davis.

Or how about that former city manager in Albert Lea, Jim Norman? He took his chances with a jury and ended up a felon convicted of fraud, but much of the evidence for his side of the argument was not allowed at trial. Looking at what he did based on the full case file, most reasonable people would not see an intent to defraud the city. They would see a stupid mistake that happened on the first month of the job, with credit card expenses shown on the very first bill, and a fuzzy definition of what relocation expenses meant. Even the City Council didn’t see an intent to defraud. It asked the out-of-county prosecutor to drop the charges. She didn’t.

It seems to me it wasn’t the jury with which Norman was taking chances. It was whether he would get a fair trial.

His case makes me think this: The people entrust prosecutors with a lot of power. Some prosecutors use their discretion to drop or lessen charges much better than others. After all, the law can be enforced at times without having to go to a judge for sentencing. Who hasn’t been given a warning and learned their lesson?

Norman deserved to lose his job. He didn’t deserve to become a felon.

Let me tell you another story. A friend of our family was caught up as a defendant in a bigger case that aimed to fry a bigger fish in a major metropolitan area. Our family friend didn’t do what they accused him of doing. He had refused when the bigger fish asked him to do this crime. An underling, though, did the alleged crime under pressure from the bigger fish. But prosecutors couldn’t reckon that someone like the underling would be capable of such a crime, so they went after our friend.

He drained much of his savings trying to fight it. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain so he wouldn’t end up dirt broke going into retirement.

His case makes me think this: The prosecutors had careers to chase. Convictions matter more to them than justice. The courts often fail to recognize that just because a person is willing to admit to something doesn’t mean it is justice. It doesn’t mean it is truth.

The system fails to recognize the scare tactic that prosecutors have of making people lose all their hard-earned money. Sure, courts will assign a defender to the indigent, but people who don’t qualify are expected — yes, expected — to throw away all they have earned if they wish to defend themselves. This is presumption of innocence?

Are the courts broken? No.

Most of the time, the justice system is catching, convicting and sentencing people who have broken the law. People may not realize it, but the courts continue to change and usually for the better. The judicial branch is much different today from 30 years ago, whether it is sentence guidelines, divorce proceedings, car crashes, bankruptcy, common-ground dispute resolution, public access to files on the Internet, among many others. The courts have changed and will continue to change.

But any system will have its flaws because, ultimately, it is created and run by people. Guilty people will go free and innocent people will be convicted. That argument was never more lively in our country than after the Casey Anthony verdict of not guilty in July.

There are issues that need addressing — a more reasonable process for overturning convictions, less emphasis on eyewitness testimony as absolute fact, more recordings of interrogations, recognition of the failures presented by incompetent defense, more equality and fairness despite income, gender and race, judges and prosecutors being more connected with the communities they serve, better forensic oversight, punishments that correct rather than harden, among others — but polls show the general public strongly believes in the justice system to get it right. And so do I.

Nevertheless, I figure it is good to maintain a healthy skepticism.

The Innocence Project is a national nonprofit effort to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. It suggests states set up innocence commissions to study the causes of wrongful convictions. Eleven states have done so.

After all, if the justice system truly wants to convict the guilty, it needs a means to examine its failures. When the wrong people are convicted, it means the guilty have escaped justice. Minnesota doesn’t have an innocence commission, or what’s sometimes called a criminal justice reform commission. Wisconsin does.

Minnesota ought to set up one.

The Innocence Project says: “With the advent of DNA evidence, we can now know with absolute certainty that certain convictions were mistakes. But how did the police, prosecutor, judge and jury all find this person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Criminal justice reform commissions enable us to review the case, identify the causes of mistaken conviction, and recommend remedial steps to avoid future mistaken convictions.”


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every other Tuesday.