Preventing the Conviction of the INNOCENT: A COMPELLING AND URGENT NEED

Article excerpt

The problem of wrongful conviction is a human problem that affects us all.

Editor's note: This article is adapted from remarks delivered at the National Conference on Preventing the Conviction of Innocent Persons held January 16-19, 2003 in Washington, DC.

I want to congratulate the American Judicature Society on holding this conference because I think it is probably one of the most critically important efforts undertaken in law reform that has happened during my lifetime, or at least during my time in the practice of law.

We have seen the facts now: In 30 years more than 100 people have been exonerated because of DNA or other true tests. That is far too many, and yet people say the system protected them. The work that has been done in preparation for this conference makes clear that sometimes it has not been the system; it has been a fortuitous circumstance that borders on being a miracle.

And when we see what DNA has done where DNA was available, just think of how many cases of third-degree felonies where people are serving five years in prison, how many misdemeanor cases where people are serving a year in prison, exist but have not the check-and-balance of science.

I think the information we have received over these last years makes it absolutely, compellingly, and urgently needed that we proceed to look at how we can prevent the conviction of innocent people. I want to salute those who did the research for so long and were told that risk of error didn't warrant much discussion. You were right and thank you for leading the way.

But there is something more to inspire us today than just numbers. I do not know how many in this room were at the Warner Theater last night, but the play Exonerated was performed for the benefit of the Innocence Project. And, ladies and gentlemen, it is one of the most compelling, powerful pieces of theater that I have seen in my life. It is a story, a true story, of six people who were exonerated-five men and one woman.

What is so powerful is that it uses the words, whenever possible, from the transcripts themselves. What is extraordinarily compelling is that you understand how somebody gets confused and then just lets the system overwhelm him or her.

A human problem

We must look at the human terms of wrongful convictions. I can tell you clearly today that this is a real problem in terms of human beings who were convicted and spent time in jail; for after the play five men, three of them exonerated from a death penalty, were there to tell us about their experiences. As I walked out of the theater, one of the men introduced himself and his wife, his wife who had stood with him while he was in prison, convicted, and sentenced to death for the death of a nine-year-old girl. As I walked with him out the aisle I wanted to reach over and just touch him and say, "thank you for surviving and thank you for coming and making the problem real for us all."

In some instances, though, the issue is not exoneration, but the problems of the system. The governor of Florida, when I served as state attorney, asked me to be a special prosecutor and reinvestigate the case of a man who had been prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to death for the poisoning death of his seven children 22 years before.

He had spent 22 years in prison with his death penalty having been set aside. He was as close as you are to me for all that day in the court as we presented our findings.

There had never been sufficient evidence to charge him in the first place, and we argued he should go free. I will always remember James Joseph Richardson walking out of that courtroom, free for the first time in 22 years. And ladies and gentlemen, with those men in the theatre last night, with James Richardson, it is absolutely imperative that we understand the beauty of the human spirit, the ability to cope, to live through this, to come out of it whole, to come out of it angry but constructive. …