August 11, 2011
The Criminal and the Prosecutor
After reading John Grisham’s book The Confession and Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino’s book Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, I’ve been thinking about the similarities between a criminal who commits a crime, but says nothing as someone else is prosecuted for the crimes and the prosecutor who gets a confession out of an innocent person or engages in tactics (or condone tactics used by law enforcement) to convict the person of his focus even if the evidence doesn’t point to guilt. Both individuals rationalize that if the jury convicts, then the system has spoken and therefore they have no incentive to correct the ruling of the jury. In The Confession, we learn that Donte’ Drumm is on death row, convicted of a crime he did not commit as a result of tactics used by a prosecutor to get a confession. In Picking Cotton, the person who committed the crimes for which Ronald Cotton was arrested, convicted and sentenced knew Cotton had been sentenced and was serving time for crimes he, the real criminal, committed. In both cases, it was a physical illness by the true perpetrators of the crimes that brought about their urge to confess to their crimes- but only after the innocent person served over a decade in prison.
Once a jury convicts, prosecutors have the power of the office and incentive to maintain the conviction at all costs. Even when confronted with evidence that another individual may have been the actual perpetrator as in Ronald Cotton’s case, the prosecutor will ignore that evidence. In Cotton’s case, on the appeal of his conviction, the prosecutor was presented in court with an individual who committed the same crimes that Cotton was accused of committing, in the same location, using the same modus operandi, and who fit the description of the perpetrator better than Cotton did. In addition, the individual confessed to others what he’d done and admitted that Cotton was serving his (the real perpetrator’s) time. Instead of pursuing the truth for the sake of justice and truly supporting the victim, the prosecutor on the appeal worked hard to keep this information away from the jury. We expect for the real criminal to be deceitful, cruel, and without conscious, but we shouldn’t expect for the District Attorney’s office to be the same way. Why do some District Attorneys seem to lack a moral compass when it comes to wrongful convictions?
Prosecutors work hard for a conviction, they develop a theory, they look for evidence, and they build/compile a case. In some cases, they will engage in misconduct to get the confession. Or they may tacitly sanction misconduct that will lead to a conviction. In Chicago, former Police Chief Jon Graham Burge was convicted for his role in coerced confessions, including allegations that members of his police force went as far as to engage in the use of electric shocks and suffocation to get confessions (http://humanrights.uchicago.edu/chicagotorture/timeline.shtml). Fortunately, when it was discovered many years later that this is how confessions came about, new trials were given, but, again, it takes outside pressure before the people who tacitly condone this activity to bring about justice. Sadly, all they, both prosecutors and the criminal, need is for the jury to convict. Once the jury convicts, then that is how they will respond to all inquiries- the jury convicted, the system works is how the prosecutor responds; the jury convicted so I am home free is how the criminal responds. The prosecutor knows that the jury often convicts based on what is presented to them. If a jury doesn’t know that a confession was coerced, or that someone else confessed to the crimes, or that there is no physical evidence tying the person to the crimes, then the jury will convict based on the prosecutors theory and trust of the prosecutor, after all, his job is to put away the bad guy. And why would he mislead us? The prosecutors have the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the trust of the jury and they know it. It no more bothers them that the person has been convicted based on flimsy evidence than it bothers the true perpetrator of the crime that someone else is serving his/her time. (Case in point? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEVURKsGoMI)
We need accountability within District Attorney’s offices. We need a check on DA’s offices. Taxpayers must demand it and District Attorneys should demonstrate their concern for potential abuses and put in safeguards. As long as innocent people are convicted, executed, and/or serve years, if not decades in prison for crimes they did not commit, it is imperative that taxpayers have some degree of accountability. In addition to safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions, there needs to be a mechanism in place that would enable those with legitimate claims of innocence to have their cases addressed. District Attorney Craig Watkins of Dallas County, Texas established a Conviction Integrity Unit and he worked with innocence projects. The result was that innocent people serving years in prison were freed. If you are a new District Attorney entering office, your legacy should be one that brought about accountability and establishing a Conviction Intregrity Unit is a start. I want to assure the reader that I am all about law and order. There are a lot of bad people doing awful things in our communities. I like having a taxpayer funded office, the District Attorney’s office, to investigate, prosecute and put criminals in prison. One can be pro law and order and also against wrongful convictions. The sooner prosecutors learn this, the better their offices will be.