This Week in Innocence

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

A DNA exoneration in Colorado:

A Colorado man wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of a woman found strangled with a dog leash was exonerated on the basis of new DNA evidence and set free on Monday after spending more than 16 years behind bars.

Robert “Rider” Dewey walked out of a courthouse in Grand Junction, Colorado, a free man after a judge found him innocent of the 1994 killing and said his exoneration marked a “historic day” for the state.

“Mr. Dewey spent 6,219 days of his life incarcerated for a crime he did not do,” Mesa County District Judge Brian Flynn said during the brief hearing. “This is a reminder to the entire system that it’s not perfect.”

Flynn said prosecutors had not committed misconduct, Dewey had been represented by good defense attorneys, and an impartial jury had heard the case but added: “Despite all these things, the system didn’t work.”…

Prosecutors announced earlier on Monday they were seeking an arrest warrant for a new suspect in the 1994 killing who was identified by DNA testing and is already serving a life sentence for a similar 1989 murder.

And two more in Dallas County, Texas:

This morning, two men stood in the same courtroom where they were convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to life in prison for a rape and shooting that happened almost 30 years ago. This time, both were smiling, as they were one step closer to exiting the criminal justice hell that consumed the last three decades of their lives.
Raymond Jackson and James Curtis Williams donned suits and were surrounded by friends, family and fellow exonerees, as Judge Susan Hawk, with her declaration of relief from conviction based on actual innocence, granted them entrance into the ever-expanding brotherhood of Dallas County exonerees. This morning’s double exoneration hearing comes just weeks after the exoneration of three men for one crime.

With dozens of men having come before them and about 10 sitting behind them in the audience, it’s clear that systematic flaws that have lead to so many wrongful convictions. Under District Attorney Craig Watkins, Dallas County has been famously proactive in freeing the wrongfully convicted. But what’s less readily apparent is how deep the problem runs.

“I know for a fact” there are other innocent men in prison, Williams said to the crowd gathered after the hearing. “You will not get the proper representation if you are poor,” he added. “A lot of them had to cop out to cases that they knew they was innocent on because they didn’t want to face the jury.”

I’ve made this point a number of times before, but it’s always worth making again: DNA testing did not “fix” the system, it only confirmed that the system is broken. DNA simply isn’t a factor in the vast, vast majority of criminal cases, including most murder cases. But the flaws that exist in the small percentage of cases where DNA is dispositive of guilt are almost certainly at work in all of those other cases, too.

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14 Responses to “This Week in Innocence”

  1. #1 |  Aresen | 

    “I know for a fact” there are other innocent men in prison, Williams said to the crowd gathered after the hearing. “You will not get the proper representation if you are poor,” he added. “A lot of them had to cop out to cases that they knew they was innocent on because they didn’t want to face the jury.”

    Which is an indictment of the system that rewards prosecutors and cops for convictions. If prosecutors and cops were truly out for “justice”, they would be doing their damnedest to see that no innocent person was ever prosecuted.

    As a friend of mine puts it “If you have convicted an innocent man, that means the real criminal is still out on the street.”

  2. #2 |  CyniCAl | 

    “I get to step outside there, touch a tree, get a dog and kiss my girl,” he said on his release. A smiling Dewey also told reporters he was not angry about the injustice, asking, “What good would it do me?”

    Another one for the files of people who have had significant portions of their lives stolen from them yet harbor no ill will toward their oppressors. Why does this appear so universal? Selection bias? Sample size too small? We only hear about the forgiving ones?

    The strange conclusion of this phenomenon is that we only need to be thoroughly and unjustifiably abused by the system to come to terms with it.

  3. #3 |  CyniCAl | 

    “Justice” is the redistribution of violence.

    For the masses and the State they enable, it only matters that someone be held accountable. If it happens to be the right person, that’s an added bonus, but certainly not a precondition.

    The State is immune to its “errors.” The price of “injustice” falls exclusively on individuals.

    As has been said countless times here: all features, no bugs.

  4. #4 |  David | 

    Presumably if you asked them when the injustice was still fresh, they’d have a different perspective, but now it’s 16-plus years down the line. It’s really really hard to stay mad about something for 16 years, even if it’s justifiable anger. Sooner or later you find you’ve adapted to your life as it is.

  5. #5 |  croaker | 

    Also, if you declare you harbor ill will and anyone involved – cop, prosecutor, judge, juror – gets so much as a hangnail, you’re going back in the hole.

  6. #6 |  Reformed Republican | 

    Another one for the files of people who have had significant portions of their lives stolen from them yet harbor no ill will toward their oppressors. Why does this appear so universal?

    Stockholm Syndrome?

  7. #7 |  CyniCAl | 

    @4, 5, 6: good answers all … so may I conclude that from the State’s perspective, if you’re going to fsck someone over, do not half-ass it, go all the way? It’s the only way to ensure that your victim becomes harmless?

    Interesting supporting observation: why does it appear that we only read about those exonerees who have been locked up for years, decades? Are there no cases of the recently-incarcerated who can demonstrate their innocence within, say, one year? Does the State have an interest, as observed above, in only exonerating those who have been destroyed by the system over long periods of time?

  8. #8 |  AlgerHiss | 

    Assuming those set free had not been convicted of any other serious crimes, the first thing they ought to do to “test” just how innocent they’ve been declared, is to go the nearest firearm dealer and fill out a form 4473.

    If an immediate purchase of a firearm is not approved, they should scream loud and often until this sort of criminal history check comes back clean.

  9. #9 |  Bob | 

    Flynn said prosecutors had not committed misconduct, Dewey had been represented by good defense attorneys, and an impartial jury had heard the case but added: “Despite all these things, the system didn’t work.”…

    I find this really hard to believe. But of course, they don’t mention the Police… how thorough a job did they do? And how carefully did the prosecution check the case?

    I’m just NOT BUYING that it’s possible to conduct a murder investigation that convicts an innocent man without misconduct.

  10. #10 |  Deoxy | 

    I’m just NOT BUYING that it’s possible to conduct a murder investigation that convicts an innocent man without misconduct.

    OF COURSE it is! One can construct all manner of extremely-odd-but-still-less-odd-than-real-world-cases examples that would do so.

    However, such things should be vanishingly rare, and they clearly are not.

    Much more obvious is the well-executed frame job (which can be done entirely by non government actors, so the police and prosecutors are clean). Difficult, but possible.

    Those should also be extremely rare (though perhaps not “vanishingly” so). The two explanations combined does not begin to cover the known cases.

  11. #11 |  StrangeOne | 

    @ #7.

    Presumably when DNA testing first became widespread in the mid 90’s, the “freed after two decades” story was acceptable, as there were few ways to prove innocence prior to that. But, nearly two decades since, we see the exact same pattern persists. Someone is convicted, usually based on a coerced confession, or if a trial took place usually only a few eyewitnesses plus a cop or two are required to get convictions. After the conviction DNA evidence is discovered (how this ALWAYS fails to emerge during the investigation and trial process is something I would like to further research done on). Then the convicted has to go through the lengthy and byzantine appeals process, often getting denied a re-trail several times by judges who arbitrarily declare that they are not deserving of one despite the existence of evidence that was never tested at their original trial. If it was a particularly high profile case, or a particularly malicious prosecutor, expect the prosecutors office to resist and impede any attempt by the convicted to get a new trial. After decades of attempts the cases themselves are usually quickly decided because in many the evidence is so overwhelming.

    In short the justice system is about applying the process of justice, as defined by government, not actual confirmation of guilt or innocence. We see this all the time in internal investigations; procedure was followed, move along. Several supreme court justices, notably Scalia, have no problem with egregious human and civil rights violations so long as the “process” of justice was applied. It doesn’t matter if your prosecuted manufactured evidence against you; you received a fair trial as defined by the state.

    Its this very crooked shell game where in you are always responsible for the worst interpretations of your actions, but any bad actions on the part of the government are deflected to the system. You’re not supposed to notice that the system is owned, operated, and undermined by the government agents screwing you. Just like when the dealer for the shell game cheats its obviously your fault for playing.

  12. #12 |  StrangeOne | 

    As an aside, I’m beginning to think confessions as whole should be done away with. It seems to me that if a prosecutor can offer you two years probation for a crime if you confess, and then turn around and push for ten year felony conviction if you go to trial, is a direct contradiction of both the fifth and sixth amendments.

    There is no just cause for the prosecutors office to seek dramatically worse punishments simply because the defendant insists upon a trial. It appears that so much of police work is geared toward getting confessions as well. It’s how they are able to flood the jails with so many petty criminals, and convict so many innocents. If state agents had to exert real effort and take every case to a full trial, they would have to be much more judicious in the use of their resources and their attitudes towards petty crime.

    Take the New York debacle, where they decriminalized possession of marijuana for personal use but the police forced nearly 2 million black and hispanic youths to “turn out their pockets” and nail them on a public display charge. The only reason they were able to get away with that for as long as they did, is that they were able to get the vast majority to confess. As far as the agents of the state are concerned that’s not 2 million people whose rights were violated, its 2 million slam-dunk arrests and convictions. If they actually had to go to trial, and if public defenders could no longer encourage their clients to cut a deal, then maybe all of the obvious civil rights abuses by the police would have come to light much earlier. Let the case be decided in a court of law, on the public record, not in some police interrogation room.

  13. #13 |  CyniCAl | 

    I agree that plea bargains are a travesty of “justice.” It seems that anything the State finds useful will be a detriment to the individual.

  14. #14 |  Marcus | 

    Radley, et al

    You will get no argument from me that the justice system is broken. What do you suggest to fix it? I assume that the fix has written about before, links, or search criteria and/or discussion would be appreciated.

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