The Worst Innocence Argument Ever

Jeff Gamso is a man of great restraint. That’s what prevented him from throwing the book into the fire after reading the first line.

I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone-cold innocent the moment I met him.

Dramatic. Moving. Deeply passionate. Utterly idiotic. It’s the equivalent of the moron who claims, “I knew he was guilty the moment I met him,” as if some gut reaction proves anything. It doesn’t, not that such vapid reactions aren’t embraced by the terminally insipid.

Like Jeff, I get a stream of offers from publishers to review books about the wrongfully convicted. Unlike Jeff, I delete them. I can’t bear to read another self-aggrandizing book by a lawyer who seeks validation. I can’t bear to read another book about the failure of the system, the ordinary malevolence of prosecutors and judges who allowed, if not caused, it to happen. I thank Jeffrey for doing it for me, for sparing me the pain.

As it happens, of course, Stolarz was right.  But despite his “more than functional ‘bullshit meter'” that makes his gut more reliable than a polygraph (so he says), he knew no such thing.  He may have believed it with all his heart.  But that ain’t the same as knowledge.  And if he’s either lying or delusional on the first page. . . .

Of course, he also claims to have essentially proved Brown innocent, though in fact it was other lawyers, after he was off the case, who turned up the crucial evidence and then used it to free Brown.

As I said, the story of how Brown got railroad onto death row for a crime he had nothing to do with and then, with diligent lawyering and more than a soupçon of luck, got off the row and then freed is pretty good.

Should the author of the book, Brian Solarz, be taken to task for writing fiction as if it were true? Probably not, even though he violated the prime directive, that he not make people stupider. The problem is that Solarz, like so many other lawyers, had a story to tell and wanted to write a book. In his story, he was the hero. That’s one of the benefits of being an author, that you tell the story through your eyes. Solarz was a laboring oar in saving Brown, and for that he gets appreciation. Even if he gave himself greater credit than others might, he deserves credit for what he did.

And there is no question but that the outcome, Alfred Dwayne Brown being saved from execution for a crime he didn’t commit, is a great and worthwhile thing. No innocent person should be convicted. No innocent person should be executed.

But the focus on individual cases, on the great wins and the terrible losses, is an appeal to emotion, as reflected by the ridiculous opening sentence. The never-ending stream of books written to extol a lawyer’s dedication and compassion takes our eye off the ball, even if the book was accurate and honest, even if it wasn’t a deep dive into self-promotion.

The key word is that criminal law is a “system.” It’s not about Brown, even though he’s an example of how poorly the system can function. The system is hard and boring to discuss, to understand, to appreciate. Brown is a tiny sliver of the system, with a face and a story that people can latch onto, can feel something about. Small minds need to feel because thinking is too damn hard and gives people headaches.

It’s not Brian Solarz’s fault that people prefer to feel rather than think. It is his fault that he played his book toward the feelers rather than the thinkers, but then, the only point to writing a book is to get people to buy it. Always be closing. There isn’t any point to writing a book if no one reads it, and if you want people to read it, appeal to what sells. Emotion sells.

But that’s the reason why the system that produces wrongful convictions, whether because of innocence or excess, can’t be fixed. We argue over whether a murder is terrorism, or a hate crime, or just a run of the mill murder, as if these are critical distinctions. We reach decisions based on whether we love or hate a defendant or victim, twisting the system to suit whatever passion tends to prevail at any given moment. We believe, or disbelieve, the stories because we love cops or hate cops. We want to burn judges at the stake for making the right decision in the wrong case.

Every day, friends and kind readers send me links to stories that are interesting, curious, bizarre and reflective of things that have gone horribly wrong with our legal system. Some are banal or parochial, while others are systemic and critical. Far more than the pitches from publishers to review a book, the stories of daily failure keep coming. How many times can a guy write about a prosecutor who deep-sixed Brady because he knew the minute he saw the defendant that he was guilty? See how that works?

The serious work at ending the conviction of defendants like Brown may be done by some diligent and dedicated lawyers, but then, we never know for sure how many Alfred Browns remain in prison. The successes are great, but tell us nothing about the failures.  No one writes a book about the failures, the defendants no one ever hears about, knows about, cares about, who fill prison cells for the wrong reasons.

Sure, there are cases that are so outrageous, so offensive, that they infuriate us. And there is a purpose to be served by spreading the word of these outrages so that people come to realize that they happen, they exist. But when we read a book about one success that brings a tear to our eye, we’re left with the feeling of virtue for being such caring people. It’s all bullshit.

Thank you, Jeff, for reading a book that I would not. Thank you for writing about what was right with the book and what was wrong. But if we can’t get beyond the easy emotions that these books and stories evoke, nothing will get any better. It may make for more books to be written in the future, but the goal is to end the dysfunction of the system, or at least improve it to the extent it can be improved, so that there will never be another book written about saving an innocent defendant from execution. We can get our emotional jollies elsewhere.

15 thoughts on “The Worst Innocence Argument Ever

  1. Nick Lidakis

    Tiny typos: Ever in title should be Evar!*

    * I keed, comrade, considering somber subject matter.

    1. SHG Post author

      A little kidding about somber subjects is what we do. Without gallows humor, we might have no humor at all.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        If’n it weren’t for bad laughs, I’d have no laughs at all,
        Gloom, despair, and agony on me.

        For the best deal on a used or recycled joke, call BR-549.

  2. Lucas Beauchamp

    Brian Solarz’s astounding sixth sense for guilt and innocence does no good if he alone has it. For some reason the police, prosecutors, jury, and judge didn’t pick up on Brown’s stone-cold innocence. We lesser people still need evidence.

  3. Lex

    Your best guess: What percentage of all felony convictions has the “wrong guy” getting convicted (i.e., a crime clearly occurred and the defendant was not involved)?

      1. Lex

        Don’t be a tool. What percentage of convicted felons are factually innocent is hardly a silly question.

        1. Andrew Cook

          Your question isn’t silly, but it is completely worthless.

          – You can’t know whether or not a convict is factually innocent. Without evidence, it’s his or her word against the verdict, so it’s unreasonably difficult to differentiate “is actually innocent” and “is claiming actual innocence to try to get ahead”.
          – “Actual innocence” isn’t a judicable issue. Even if someone is factually innocent, that and $3.50 will get you a tall latte at Starbucks, not his or her release.
          – Even not-factually-innocent defendants are entitled to effective representation. Knowing a defendant is or could be innocent is completely irrelevant to that person’s defense.
          – Even in the aggregate, what would that statistic add to any argument or conversation? Real numbers aren’t going to change Blackstone’s formulation, or change that there’s supposed to be a presumption of innocence, or change the incidence of misconduct. They’ll just sit there, for someone to write a law review article about and then forget about forever.

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