Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Actually, it IS an indictment of the system

There are few things more predictable than pablum from law enforcement officials about how any outrage perpetrated by the criminal justice system is just an "isolated incident" or "mistake." Whether it's another botched SWAT raid on an innocent home-dweller, a questionable police shooting or someone exonerated after spending many years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, it's never the system at fault.
Sometimes they will even claim that the fact that Mr. John Doe was released after spending several decades in prison is proof that the system works. No, that's a system failure folks. Especially when the system works so hard to prevent those exonerations from going forward.
The latest is a certain Timothy Masters, released after spending nine years in a Colorado prison for murder when DNA tests proved he wasn't the killer after all.
The DA (not the one who put him away), Larry Abrahamson, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying Masters' case " is not, in any way, and indictment of the criminal justice system."
Actually, it is, of course. We've had so many DNA exonerations that support for the death penalty in this country has eroded significantly and overall trust in the system declined.
I don't have a philosophical argument with the death penalty in theory, but my faith that it's can be fairly, consistently and justly be applied has evaporated.
One also has to wonder how many people are sitting in jail for crimes they didn't commit that don't lend themselves to DNA evidence.
We've had many DNA-based exonerations for murders and rapes, which both often leave usable DNA evidence. These cases also get the most attention from the police and from the innocence projects.
But it seem logical that the error rate for many other crimes is at least as high. But convenience store robbers, burglars, drug offenders, etc., don't often leave relevant DNA evidence, and even if they did, no effort would be expended on finding it for such low-level crimes.
It's often said as a joke that prisons are full of "innocent men." There may be more truth to the joke than we thought.

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