Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Serving Justice

I just read of yet another case of a guy who’s about to be executed who is probably innocent. And the thing that always gets me about these cases is that the police and prosecutors really don’t seem to give a damn that they might be letting a guilty guy get away with a crime. They all firmly believe that bad guys should be punished for their crimes, but when it comes down to it, all they really seem to care about is that they got someone for the crime. And now that they’ve got someone, they’ll be damned to let him go.

Here’s one of the villains in this article:
Georgia officials insist that Davis' failed 2004 federal court hearing is proof he has had his opportunity in court with the new evidence. "They've had a chance to challenge the conviction," said David Lock, chief assistant district attorney in Chatham County, where Savannah is located.

And if you read the article, you’d know that he’s most certainly lying. Because the reason the federal court dismissed his case was because of a law pushed by Newt Gingrich in the 90’s which denied federal courts the ability to hear these cases. It wasn’t that they heard the new evidence and dismissed it. It was because the law forbid them from even considering it.

And this guy most certainly knows that, but doesn’t give a damn. And sure, I’d prefer that he be concerned over the fact that he might be aiding in the murder of an innocent man. But you’d think he’d at least be angered that they might not have caught the guilty guy; who is possibly still on the loose and dangerous. But no. He’s got his guy, and that’s all he cares about.

Filling a Hole

But it’s not just this guy. It seems that once police and prosecutors decide that they’ve got the right guy, they refuse to look at anything that might exonerate that person. And that includes fighting requests to have DNA evidence examined on old convictions. They just don’t want to hear it. It’s like watching Perry Mason and the prosecutor refuses to drop the case after the guilty person confessed. I’m sure Perry kept a gun in his briefcase for just such an occurrence. And yes, that’d be my favorite episode.

But again, even if they don’t care about hurting innocent people, they should at least consider the fact that they’re allowing guilty people to roam free. But I guess these people don’t work like that. Fighting crime is like filling holes. Fill the hole with someone who sorta fits, and move on to the next hole. And if the square peg doesn’t fit into the round hole, just keep hitting.

And I can understand that. When people’s lives are in your hands, it’s probably easier to not consider them as real people. It’s just another job. And it’s got to hurt to truly contemplate that you might be ruining the lives of hundreds of people; so it’s just better to pretend that it’s not happening.

Oddly enough, after I wrote this, I happened to read Wikipedia on Henry Lee Lucas, the Texas “serial killer” who once confessed to over 3,000 murders, many of which he couldn’t possibly have committed. Apparently, after they forced him to confess to crimes he might have committed, police started using Lucas as a clearinghouse for all their cold cases, as a way of getting them off the books. At least two bright police officers actually got him to confess to invented crimes as a means of testing him. Yet his handlers refused to consider that he was lying, or that their role in coercing him to confess may have been a bit problematic.

Eventually, the Lucas thing became such an embarrassment that he became the only guy that then-Governor Bush saved from the death penalty. Hell, that’s almost as big of an honor as getting 3,000 murders attributed to him. I wonder if he got a framed copy of Bush’s commutation letter.

The Job

But this was just an extreme example of what we keep seeing again and again. Our law enforcers really aren’t that concerned with enforcing the law. Sure, they’d like to get the right guy. And they sure want to believe they got the right guy. But when it comes down to it, they just want somebody. And anyone convenient will do. And once they’ve gone through all the time and trouble of catching someone, by god, they want that someone to stay caught.

Criminal defense attorneys often take a lot of flak for defending obviously guilty people, but that’s their job. They’re hired to give someone a good defense, and for as much as that’s a rotten thing, that’s just how our system works. Everyone deserves a good defense; even the scumbags.

But prosecutors do the same damn thing, and most people don’t seem to mind. Just as a defense attorney’s job is to defend their client, a prosecutor’s job is to prosecute that client. But at a certain level, the prosecutor also needs to back away from the case and really decide if he’s got the right guy, and I don’t think they do that enough. They get caught into the trap of wanting to win a case because they want to win, and aren’t really thinking of the consequences.

As with too many of us, our jobs become some sort of abstract thing that is achieved for its own merits. Waiters who think their job is to be tipped and teachers who think their job is to enforce rules and be obeyed. As an accountant, I do that same thing. Amounts of money that I personally would find thrilling to have and devastating to lose have no real meaning to me when I’m punching away at these numbers. But it is real money and this stuff has real consequence, and I have to make an effort to remember that. My job isn’t some abstract thing involving numbers. This is real stuff that affects real people.

And with prosecutors and police, it’s all the more real. This shouldn’t be about closing files and filling holes. This should be about separating the good guys from the bad. And sure, they’ll never get everything right. But they’ve got to try. And it doesn’t end once they decide to prosecute, or even when they get that conviction. They’re never really off the hook.

And I can certainly understand why they wouldn’t want to think about that. But that doesn’t let them off the hook. Their job isn’t prosecuting people and closing cases. Their job is to serve justice. And when they close a case by locking up the wrong guy, they’ve committed two offenses against justice: Injuring an innocent man and allowing a dangerous one to roam free. It might help them sleep better at night, but it only endangers the rest of us.

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