There’s no one interested in the criminal justice system who hasn’t heard the name Barry Scheck, a law professor at Cardozo Law School who was a co-founder of the Innocence Project. Peter Neufeld, for reasons that elude me, isn’t as well known, but just as responsible. The point of the Innocence Project was to question dubious old convictions with DNA evidence available, test it and make sure they didn’t convict the wrong guys.
The thesis justifying the Innocence Project is that there were innocent people convicted. Barry and Peter proved the thesis over and over. The original Innocence Project now has plenty of state and local counterparts, adding more laboring oars to the rowing. In Mississippi, they just did it again. From the New York Times :
Mr. Bivens, 59, and Bobby Ray Dixon, 53, two men who were serving life sentences, were exonerated by a judge on Thursday morning, their guilty pleas to the charge of murder erased. The judge said it was likely that another man, Larry Ruffin, would soon be cleared for the same murder.
There was no special hurry in his case. Mr. Ruffin died in prison eight years ago.
Notice that Bivens and Dixon weren’t convicted after trial, but pleaded guilty. There were confessions galore, and they even cooperated by testifying against Ruffin, who also confessed, then recanted, in the rape of Evan Gail Patterson in front of her 4 year old son, after which her throat was cut. The only problem is that DNA showed that it was done by Andrew Harris, who was serving a life sentence for another rape.
Ashby Jones at the WSJ Law Blog makes an astute observation:
Is it just us, or does it seem that tales of the wrongfully-accused-getting-released-from-prison are popping up more and more frequently?
While it’s wrongfully convicted, the point is well taken. It’s past 250 and still going strong, but it has also begun to lose impact. That’s what happens with familiarity. The shock we felt in the beginning gives way to complacency. Rather than headlines, exonerations become blurbs. Soon, no mention will be made at all. It will become mundane and unworthy of valuable media territory.
In course of the work of the Innocence Projects, we came to realize many things: That the causes of false convictions were junk science, eyewitness identification and false confessions. Then there were lying, scheming prosecutors, and lazy, incompetent defense lawyers. We learned that judges go with the flow, neither watching the gate nor overseeing the process to assure its integrity.
The most significant lesson learned was that we could undo the damage if there was DNA to be had. If not, prosecutions, whether ending in a conviction after trial or plea, were untouchable, though they bore all the same burdens. Despite all we’ve learned, there has been almost no institutional recognition of how poorly we do in distinguishing between guilty and innocent (or less innocent than charged), or providing a fair trial.
This particular case, as horrific as they come, provides an example of how even the most trusted and conclusive of methods for determining guilt, the plea, reflects as much a failure of the system as a bad ID or coerced confession. Bivens and Dixon copped a plea to avoid the death penalty. A fine day’s work by all involved, but for that one unfortunate detail, that they were innocent.
Having no idea what these two men discussed with their lawyers before deciding what to do, let’s assume that they were told that their confessions left them defenseless and their option was conviction with death or, under the best of circumstances, conviction with life. A plea to life makes perfect sense. Under these circumstances, who can blame them for the choice.
It would have been impossible to know, back in 1980, that DNA evidence would serve to eventually exonerate them. Nor would they have suspected that two New Yorkers, Barry and Peter, would found a gang dedicated to using that DNA to clear the names of the wrongfully convicted. Without omniscience, the case was handled as well as can be expected.
The problem is that nothing has changed. Sure, we’ve learned tons. The National Academy of Science has ripped junk science and the mechanisms that support and allow it in the courtroom, yet it remains as prevalent as ever. We know that eyewitness identification is the most potent of evidence, and yet inherently unreliable. False confessions are every bit as real as true confessions, but no one really cares. And of course, there are still bad prosecutors, bad defense lawyers and bad judges.
One of the great hopes was that the public, the jury pool, would become more sophisticated, better educated, by the work of the Innocence Project, realizing that the system is far from perfect and extrapolating from DNA exonerations that the same flaws exist in non-DNA cases, but without a means to prove them wrong. There’s no indication of this happening.
Even readers here, far more likely to be aware of, concerned about, attuned to the flawed criminal justice system, might have missed the news of Biven’s and Dixon’s exoneration. After the first 250, what’s another exoneration? And ordinary injustice goes on as if nothing has happened.