CONS of our legal justice system
By Amanda King
Early last year, Fox premiered a new television show called “Proven Innocent.”
According to the official premise, the show follows a wrongful conviction law firm and its employees as they reopen criminal cases and attempt to exonerate convicts who have been “proven” guilty.
The show, and the premise itself, portrays a worthy cause; after all, how many convicted criminals alone had verdicts overturned when DNA evidence was first widespreadly tested and matched?
Moreover, haven’t those working in the legal system just written off wrongful convictions as just collateral damage for decades? A tragic side effect of our process of trial by jury?
Perhaps, perhaps not. Regardless, the fact remains that innocent people have been wrongfully convicted in the past — and of course, many still are now.
What we can do about such injustice is questionable because, in some ways, the people who assume it’s just bound to happen are right. When all evidence points to a defendant, and all the jury has is the information before them, mistakes can be made. Juries are only composed of humans, after all.
If you want to see some evidence for yourself, go to innocenceproject.org — who at any given time, are evaluating between 6,000 and 8,000 cases.
Consider Antron McCray, 15; Kevin Richardson, 14; Yusef Salaam, 15; Raymond Santana, 14; and Korey Wise, 16 — a.k.a., the “Central Park 5.” Accused of raping a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park, these five boys were victims of a wild media frenzy which culminated in a wrongful conviction, despite “inconsistent confessions, DNA evidence exclusion and a lack of any other evidence linking them to the crime scene.”
Thankfully, they were all exonerated in 2002, but many wrongful convictions still stand — as the Innocent Project’s website, if not it’s existence itself, heartbreakingly shows.
Whether the wrongfully convicted are rightly set free or not, cases such as these are just plainly tragic. They highlight the very worst aspects of our justice system — when the fate of someone’s freedom relies solely on twelve jurors and their ability to differentiate fact from fiction in the courtroom. Not to mention difficulties in appealing a verdict.
But once I finished ruminating on the injustice of it all, once I started to really consider the drawbacks of our legal justice system, I started wondering about the other kinds of cases. The ones we don’t hear about in the news or on charitable websites. Likely because if we did, the public would be in a constant state of panic.
What about the people who are definitely guilty, but can’t be convicted?
The people who would have been found guilty, if certain evidence had been deemed admissible?
The people who were tried once for a certain crime and can’t be tried again once new and incriminating evidence is found, because of double jeopardy?
It happens more than anyone wants to think, because who wants to think that dangerous people who slipped through the justice system are walking around free to commit more heinous crimes?
Simply because evidence was found from a faulty warrant that wasn’t specific enough, or was given to police by a third-party, or the statute of limitations had expired, the list goes on and on.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some rules in place to prevent some of these “technicalities.” For example, as per Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, there’s the “inevitable discovery” exemption, wherein if law enforcement can prove that they would’ve found the evidence eventually through the course of an investigation, it can be used in a criminal case.
The problem, though, is that this is difficult to prove, and if inevitable discovery can’t be proven, the evidence falls victim to the “exclusionary rule” and is suppressed. Moreover, inevitable discovery generally only applies to derivative evidence; Most states don’t allow for primary evidence to apply.
And an even worse phenomenon: fruit of the poisonous tree.
Let’s say someone leaves DNA at a crime scene. The police run it through their database and get no matches. They widen the parameters and find a familial match that leads to the suspect. The suspect refuses to give DNA, and now he can’t be compelled to give it — because, that’s right, fruit of the poisonous tree.
The suspect was found in an illegal DNA search, and thus any evidence police found after it is inadmissible.
This example is specific, but the new advances in DNA evidence research have been revolutionary to law enforcement: Police caught the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo, guilty of more than 50 rapes and 13 murders, after 30 years of evading law enforcement after they ran his DNA through a personal genomics website and got a familial hit.
But only a limited number of states allow such evidence, and civil rights activists vehemently protest the ethics of such methods.
So what is the solution to these problems?
These two problems are blaringly different sides of the same coin of the American justice system, both horrifyingly unjust — but what do we do here? We can see the problems, we know they exist, but how can we fix them? What better alternative is there?
For wrongful convictions, on the heads side, maybe there isn’t an immediate solution.
In Japan, the justice system operates under a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality. Imagine if the U.S. decided to shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused? If, instead of being instructed to find a defendant innocent until proven guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” they were instead asked to convict anyone under suspicion of being guilty?
Millions would be wrongfully imprisoned on circumstantial evidence alone. This wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone — on the contrary, it would imprison even more innocents.
So perhaps the heads side of this coin must stay the same for now… until we can find a better alternative.
But what about the tales side?
What if we were allowed to try someone for the same crime more than once? Prosecutors might just retry defendants until they get the verdict they want. But they also might choose not to waste more resources, unless they could find definitive evidence for the second time around.
How about allowing in evidence that was seized without a specific warrant? Or letting law enforcement use secondary DNA matches? Wouldn’t that violate some of the most basic of civil rights? But wouldn’t it be worth it? I say absolutely.
Even criminals have civil rights — but if absolute proof was found that someone commited a crime, isn’t it completely reasonable to assert that the government should be able to use it against them?
Or should we do as civil rights activists do in situations like these — such as the ones that opposed DeAngelo’s conviction — and refuse to consider the horrors, both past and future, that a serial criminal has and will continue to commit because absolute proof was found through arguable means?
Perhaps I’m too idealistic in overlooking the potential negative consequences that changing some of these canon laws would have on civil rights.
But I would rather be too idealistic, than think about all of the victims who could have been saved if our justice system had not failed.
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