Friday, June 30, 2006

Overzealous prosecutors

The LA Times is running a story about the epidemic of unsafe convictions in the USA, and the ways that prosecutors try to win at all costs -- even at the cost of jailing innocent people.

BY ALL APPEARANCES, the sexual assault case against three members of the Duke University lacrosse team involves serious prosecutorial misjudgment, if not downright misconduct.

Michael B. Nifong, the Durham County, N.C., prosecutor, made public accusations long before the conclusion of the investigation and now forges ahead even as DNA, witness statements, medical reports and other evidence lead impartial observers to find the case ridiculously weak.
The role of rationalization is on clearest display after DNA exonerates those already convicted. The occasional brave prosecutor will apologize and take action to release the man he or his office wrongly put behind bars, but more often the prosecutor refuses to admit the obvious. Though he routinely argues to juries about the infallibility of DNA evidence, now he isn't so sure. Or, though he advanced a theory about the defendant's guilt with certainty, he now abandons that theory while nevertheless maintaining the belief in guilt.

The article talks about the New York-based Innocence Project, which has performed DNA testing on many convicted criminals, and exonerated 180 wrongly convicted people in the last 15 years. Remember, these are only people convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder or rape, where DNA evidence is likely to be involved. One has to ask the question, how many hundreds, perhaps thousands, more innocent people are languishing in jail for crimes they never committed?

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