One of the constant themes in both movies and television shows dealing with crime and the courts is the use of shortcuts by the authorities to nail someone who obviously is guilty. Messy things like due process of law and rights of the accused are so 1787 and have no place in modern society where outcomes are more important than the way one reaches those ends.
The ends can be frightening. The New York Times reports that one of the reasons that more than 94 percent of criminal charges in both state and federal cases end in plea bargains is that prosecutors can hang the prospect of stiff sentences over the heads of anyone who decided to go to trial and is found guilty, a situation that led Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to note that the American criminal justice system has become “a system of pleas, not a system of trials.”
Innocent people often are swept up on that tide of guilty pleas. Regular readers of this blog may understand this is so, but most Americans are incredulous. Why in the world would innocent people agree to plead to something they had not done? Is it not the situation in the USA that if you have done nothing wrong, you don’t have to worry about being charged or convicted?
Unfortunately, one of the things I hear most from people wrongfully accused of crimes has been, “I didn’t know this was happening in America.” Well, it does and much more often than one would think, especially with federal prosecutors, who have weapons at their disposal that the framers of the U.S. Constitution would have considered utterly barbaric.
Not only has federal criminal law essentially done away with the bedrock of Anglo-American law, the mens rea requirement, but federal prosecutors can pile charges upon charges, taking the same alleged act and fashioning multiple offenses from it. For that matter, federal prosecutors are not even required to know the laws they supposedly enforce and prosecute and when they are wrong, they pay no price and innocent people remain in prison.
In a shocking article, USA Today recently reported on a horrific situation in North Carolina in which federal prosecutors went after “scores” of innocent people for acts that were perfectly legal. According to the newspaper:
Terrell McCullum did not commit a federal crime by carrying a shotgun and a rifle out of his ex-girlfriend’s house.
But he is serving a federal prison sentence for it. And the fact that everyone — including the U.S. Justice Department— agrees that he is legally innocent might not be enough to set him free.
A USA TODAY investigation, based on court records and interviews with government officials and attorneys, found more than 60 men who went to prison for violating federal gun possession laws, even though courts have since determined that it was not a federal crime for them to have a gun.
Many of them don’t even know they’re innocent.
Lest one think that prosecutors even care about what they have done, think again. While the U.S. Department of “Justice” worked hard to put them into prison (mostly on plea bargains, of course), it refuses to lift a finger to right the wrong:
Still, the Justice Department has not attempted to identify the men, has made no effort to notify them, and, in a few cases in which the men have come forward on their own, has argued in court that they should not be released.
Justice Department officials said it is not their job to notify prisoners that they might be incarcerated for something that they now concede is not a crime. And although they have agreed in court filings that the men are innocent, they said they must still comply with federal laws that put strict limits on when and how people can challenge their convictions in court.
“We can’t be outcome driven,” said Anne Tompkins, the U.S. attorney in Charlotte.
For Tompkins to make that quote is especially rich, because federal prosecutors in the federal Western District of North Carolina for years have been nothing but outcome-driven. After her office secured a counterfeiting conviction against Bernard Von NotHouse, who had minted silver coins, Tompkins announced that NotHouse was a “terrorist” who threatened “the economic stability of this country.” (One is left asking how the inflationary policies of the U.S. government create stability.)
Tompkins and her colleagues in the Western District also have another weapon they use to try to force innocent people to plead guilty: the Mecklenburg County jail in Charlotte, which also is used as a federal lockup. To put it mildly, conditions in that jail are horrific, and they violate all human decency, and that works to the advantage of prosecutors.
Prisoners there get only a small cup of water each day, the food is especially bad, with dinner in some cases being nothing but a stale piece of cornbread. Authorities do not give prisoners underwear changes, deny them soap, and because bathrooms are not located in cells, prisoners must ask permission to use the facilities, requests that routinely are denied. Forget having soap for showers, and prisoners who are on prescription medications often find those meds either withheld or given in irregular doses at irregular times.
It is not difficult for federal prosecutors to find ways to hold people in lockups indefinitely. They can claim flight risk, or danger to society, or a thousand other things, most of which are not true but federal prosecutors long ago decided that truth was irrelevant to their outcome-driven missions.
Not surprisingly, people held for any length of time in these conditions become malleable to plea agreements. When someone is denied medications, thought processes may become irregular or skewed, and by actively working to destroy both the physical and mental health of people accused of committing federal crimes, prosecutors are easily able to hold out promises of better living condition — as long as the accused give prosecutors what they want.
It is difficult for someone to maintain innocence while being brutalized by the system, and when prosecutors are able to hold out the unhappy prospects for someone to face such horrific living conditions for decades, we should not be surprised that so many people will plead to something — anything — just to get out of their present circumstances.
Such conditions are not limited to Charlotte, although federal prosecutors in the Western District are notorious for using any tricks, including lying to judges and the media, in order to get what they want. The culture of lying and brutality that has been embedded in the U.S. Department of Justice for many decades is alive and well in North Carolina.