During the last three years I have noticed a resurgence of all things procedural. Be it Law and Order SVU, CSI, NCIS and online sensations like Serial, Undisclosed and Making a Murderer, investigating crimes and pleading for the wrongfully accused has become mainstream. I can’t blame the public for eating up the drama, it is addictive.
To fully understand why all of a sudden innocence projects are becoming popular around the USA, you must study the climate after 9/11. Homeland Security Acts have nearly evaporated the rights of suspected terrorists, opening the door for multiple civil right violations and false imprisonment charges. Technology has advanced to the point we can do laboratory testing to accurately detect almost anything and to process almost any kind of DNA evidence.
One by one prosecutors and defense attorneys have gained access to more evidence experts, including forensic anthropologists and analysts. The types of evidence processing methods have become part of our vernacular and people are well versed in legalese. We are all in constant fear of losing our freedom or being attacked at home which forced us to learn about the systems that regulate justice and punishing perpetrators. Sadly what we have seen and learned has been alarming. Why? Because we now realize prisoners are people too.
The most compelling argument I have heard in regards to inmates as people comes from the TED talk “The Secret US Prisons You Have Never Heard Of”. Will Potter shows us how we treat max security prisoners and how some of them are negated family visits or even lawyers. If reporters approach these prisoners the system retaliated by making their lives hell. Losing your civil rights is serious business but being buried so deep in it you never see the light of day because someone suspects you are a terrorist or traitor is not something I would wish on my worst enemy.
Most correctional facilities do not focus on the rehabilitation portion and once offenders are paroled or released they have very few options to re-enter society. No wonder a high percentage reoffend and are jailed again! Check out the documentary Scars and Bars and Undisclosed Episode 12: Prisoner’s Dilema for the views and opinions of those on the inside.
Take Making a Murderer from Netflix as an example of how the judicial system can fail a person countless times. From being wrongfully accused and convicted, to being set free and later arrested for another crime he did not commit, Steven Avery (and his nephew Brendan Dassey) is fighting for his freedom as we speak. Incarcerated 23 out of his 53 years, Steven has yet to prove in court that the charges against him and his nephew were made up because a corrupt or rather inept Sheriff’s Department has a vendetta against his family. Although we aren’t given possible suspects other than the Avery’s, we wonder if a killer is still at large because the wrong people were found guilty. Trust me when I say, he is not alone.
Serial, and later Undisclosed, follow a similar case. Adnan Syed, a teenager at the time, was accused and later convicted of strangling and burying his ex girlfriend, Hae Min Lee a few hours after school ended on a clear January day in Woodlawn Maryland. Between allegations that Baltimore City and County police were not only corrupt but on a rush to clear their murder dockets, investigators and lawyers for the defense have been able to prove that a series of unfortunate events led to Adnan being found guilty. The main evidence in the case centered around cell phone tower ping and location technology that has been proven inadmissible and inadequate in many cases because it doesn’t conclusively show where a call was made or received. Ineffective counsel, conflicting testimony from star and eye witnesses add to the drama of this injustice. At least Mr Syed is getting a chance to a new trial and post conviction relief that many never get a chance to enjoy. (The upcoming season of Undisclosed will feature another case now that dates are set for hearings in February. Visit their website for more details.)
For Season 2, Serial has featured PFC Bowe Bergdahl’s ordeal as a Taliban prisoner of war, which unfortunately occurred after he decided to cause a DUSTWUN to protest US Army policies. It took 5 years and a prisoner exchange to secure his release which polarized a nation as to what proper punishment should be for the POW. The Army is pursuing a court martial under the charges of dereliction of duty and misbehavior before the enemy, the latter can result in a life in prison sentence. As the story unfolds we will discover or at least discuss Bowe’s motivation, defense and fate. He is currently on active duty albeit on a desk job until his trial comes to pass.
Cases like these three gentlemen’s, four if you count Avery’s nephew, remind us that a miscarriage of justice can happen to anyone, yet we tend to care only when it occurs to a friend or relative. Based on my own experience handling bail, arraignments, and trials for acquaintances accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit, I can attest to the financial and emotional toll for those in the defendant’s support system. I can’t imagine what the accused must feel. Those involved will become experts at local laws, at researching county records for precedents, at surfing directories for experts and case logs to discern the quality of the defense lawyers. You learn to think like a police officer, process evidence like criminal investigation units and read medical examiner reports like doctors. All of this to prove someone is innocent, to leave no stone unturned, no alibi or possible suspect unchecked. If you are lucky, you have the resources to fund your own defense team and post conviction relief staff. Get appointed a public defender and your chances go down depending on the city, county or counselor workload. A good defense team will run you thousands of dollars, sometimes into six figures. This is why the rich walk and the poor talk or confess so to speak. A plea bargain can save you time from jail and expenses, and although it automatically turns you into an offender, people plead out to continue with their lives.
Countless innocence projects around the nation work 24/7 to review and take on the cases of those few who can prove they didn’t do it. Thousands of DNA kits are sitting on shelves, unprocessed and forgotten. Most of these could exonerate individuals that deserve a chance and are supposedly afforded the right under the Constitution to prove they are not guilty. The restitution alone for these imprisoned folks would be astronomical but worth it if the cases result in improvements to the current penal code and judicial processes. No one should lose a lifetime because the police and prosecutors wanted to pad their closed case counts or let their bias seep into their findings. The presumption of innocence and their reputation is the first thing the people charged lose and the last thing they will ever recover.
The issue of prisoners being seen as people compounds because the public clamors for correctional facilities to “lock them up and throw away the keys”. As a society, we don’t have the tolerance nor compassion to reintroduce people into our world especially when they have committed violent and non-violent crimes. Although one must prove rehabilitation and repentance to be set free, most institutions don’t offer job training or placement once the prisoners are released. Without a home, friends or sponsors, these people are left destitute and without a means to earn a living. They become less than human, unemployable and unwanted, truncating any chance of successfully becoming productive members of society.
I understand that not all crimes are alike and not all criminals can be rehabilitated but those who want to prove they deserve a second chance seldom get the opportunity to do so. It is sad to see a person with so much potential commit petty crimes to return to jail because they are better off locked up, getting three square meals a day, medical care and a stable roof over their heads. 😦
The goal of all of these shows is to not only educate the average citizen about the perceptions we have of criminals as a whole but to poke holes in the criminal system. Problems with false testimony, incorrect suspect identofication, prosecutorial and defense misconduct, are all part of the issues we confront when being judged by a group of our peers. Not all convictions are just, and not all convicts deserve to be put away and forgotten. We are failing them when we turn our backs on this portion of the population and propagate the stereotypes that come with having done time. In theory if they did their time, they paid for their crime. They deserve to enjoy freedom as the rest of us do. Let’s hope one day we don’t have to learn firsthand how truly blind justice can be.
Like any other group there are exceptions to which we can’t apply rehabilitation or reintegration. However, we need to educate ourselves on the subject to help those who do want and can rejoin society. Harassing a person due to a conviction should never be an option. Open your heart and mind with caution; you are entitled to be wary but not to the point where you overreact. You could find yourself on the wrong side of the law too if someone accuses you of a crime you didn’t commit. Tread lightly and be respectful when discussing this subject. You’d be surprised who has been on the defendant’s chair.