We fail ourselves if the wrong person is in jail. Police, prosecutors, and judges are society’s agents: what they do in our name, rightly or wrongly measures us as a people. One wrongful conviction would be too many if you were the one: imagine for a moment that it’s you locked behind bars, innocent – Bill Rowling, CEO, Civil Liberties Australia
We have the freedom to cherish. We feel protected and safe within a system that guarantees us the legal rights. This system composed of human beings like you and me is an ultimate source of support and relief. But as they say to err is human. And an error made during criminal convictions can destroy lives, relationships and mental health with no real compensation for the lost years and liberty. And the question of compensation arises only if one is lucky enough to be exonerated. Or else, many innocent prisoners never make to clear their offenses and stay unrecognized by the justice system. As the study shows that 4.1% of inmates awaiting execution on death row in the US are innocent and that at least 340 innocent people may have been executed since 1973.
The matter becomes more disturbing when someone from the justice system intentionally works against innocents and frame them. Prosecutors who are focused on securing convictions, a police officer who isn’t reliable and a judge who is reluctant to overturn the case can end up putting an innocent behind the bars. They can use controversial techniques to get the confessions and have their work done without caring whatsoever about the truth. As happened with Jeffrey Mark Deskovic who was convicted of raping, beating and strangling a classmate at the age of 17. According to the police, he had a suspicious behavior as he was emotionally distraught over her classmate’s death and was an awkward kid without many friends. Jeffrey described his experience during the police interrogation that eventually leads him to the imprisonment for 17 years.
“They got me to agree to take a polygraph test telling me that there was some new information in the police file that they wanted to share with me but the only way they could do that if only I took and passed the polygraph examination…
They put me in a small room. I didn’t have an attorney present. I wasn’t given anything to eat the entire time I was there. There were three police officers who I knew were police officers and then there was the polygraphist who actually was a county sheriff’s investigator dresses like a civilian pretending not to be a cop. They strapped me to the polygraph machine and before beginning the polygraph examination they gave me countless cups of coffee, the purpose of which was to get me nervous. So after about 20 mins, pretending to align the machine, the interrogator started interrogating me using the third-degree tactic. He invaded my personal space, he raised his voice at me, he kept asking me the same questions over and over again as each hour passed so did my fear increase in proportion to the time. Towards the end of the examination, the polygrapher made a statement. What do you mean you didn’t do it? You just told me through the polygraph test result that you did. We just want you to verbally confirm it.
When he said that to me, it really shot my fear through the roof. At that point who should make a grand appearance other than the police officer who was pretending to be my friend. He informed me that the other officers were going to harm me but he was holding them off but could not do so indefinitely. You have to help yourself here, you understand.
Considering that I have maintained my innocence for previous six and a half to seven hours. It was clear what he meant by that. They wanted me to confess. When it was added that if I did as they wanted, not only the would stop what they are doing but I could go home afterward. Being young, naive, frightened sixteen years old, not thinking about the long-term implications, just being concerned about my safety right then right there, in fear of my life, painfully conscious of the fact that I knew that nobody knew where I was and then there was the push-pull dynamic. One one hand, the officer is threatening me with harm bait, on the other, he’s throwing me the false life preserver telling me that I’m not gonna be arrested. Being totally overwhelmed emotionally and psychologically. I took out what they offered and I made up a story based upon the information which they had given me in the course of interrogation.”
Jeffrey is one the 205 men and one woman who have been exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989 in which 53 have been convicted of murder.
Another alarming case is of Lawrence McKinney, 62, who spent half of his life in prison after he was wrongly convicted of raping a woman and stealing her television in 1978. After 31 years in jail, an evidence was found indicating that he was not even present on the scene. He was issued $75 in compensation and it took him another three months to cash it as he had no ID. Pretty shame paying $2 for each year he spent in prison.
I don’t have no life, all my life was taken away.
After release begins the struggle of reconnecting with people and making a living. A trauma that proceeds with grief for lost years.
When I came out I was very paranoid and I thought people were out to get me -it was like everybody was staring at me. For the first six months after I was released from prison, I tried to work with other people in similar circumstances to me to secure the release, but I ended up in the hospital because I was having a nervous breakdown. — Michael O’Brien
It’s not that rare that the prosecutors and police ignore key evidence and intentionally withhold information from the defense. Prosecutors have immense power in determining who will be subjected to criminal punishment. And some misuse this power and fail to reveal the evidence. They have absolute immunity against civil suits and they rarely receive the conviction for their errors. Indeed, a study conducted in 5 states found that in 660 cases where courts had confirmed prosecutorial misconduct the number of prosecutors disciplined was only one. Some prosecutors even receive bonuses for achieving a high conviction.
When people in power turn a blind eye to the crime and let some innocent rot in the prison for a lifetime, we can’t help losing our faith in humanity and justice system. But the struggle will go on, striving for the truth and for the meritable freedom. Finishing with Voltaire, the priority must be to protect the innocent.
It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one.