Police and prosecutors will tell us that every man in prison claims to be innocent. Such protestations carry little weight in the smug world of our justice system. But in fact there are men in jail who are innocent, and a few have been set free.
Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck founded the Innocence Project in 1992. That was in the early days of DNA evidence. Having had personal experience with Peter, and in my own life seeing an innocent man incarcerated for fifteen years and then exonerated, I tip my cap. To date they have won freedom for (if I read it correctly) 361 people.
We are all familiar with wrongful conviction, even if only via Dr. Richard Kimble. He was “The Fugitive” both on TV and in the movies. That story was based on Dr. Sam Sheppard, a man who spent time in prison for murdering his wife and who was later exonerated. The whole Sheppard affair is suspicious, but happened so long ago that researching it would be of little interest. There are, however, lessons to draw from both Sheppard and Kimble.
Kimble, as portrayed by Harrison Ford, repeatedly claimed “I did not kill my wife.” No one listened, no one cared, no one believed him. Once judged guilty by police, the media and the courts, a man stays guilty.
There are probably thousands of innocent (mostly) men in jail. Innocence Project has given some of them a voice. In the case I am familiar with, Jim Bromgard, I saw some of the worst law enforcement ever done. I did not know it, of course, as my interface with the legal system was limited. Only over time have I come to understand that what I saw, selective prosecution and fabricated evidence, are not uncommon.
In books and on TV we find detectives to be dogged, smart and intuitive – Columbo, Holmes, Rockford, and a host of others. They work one case at a time, and solve it. They have sharp eyes for evidence, and nothing escapes their notice.
If a case has to go to court, it does so within days. Justice is point-on and swift. Television judges (mostly women these days), are objective and hard to fool.
In the real world, police detectives are burdened with too many cases and overwhelmed by too much evidence. Courts do not have time for justice, only process. If by chance police solve a case, luck usually plays a role. But if a case is complicated, if it takes more than the obvious evidence to solve, subjective reasoning steps in. This was the case with Bromgard. A horrible crime had happened, and appeared to be random.
Police selected Bromgard, and then went searching for evidence. They had no witnesses, no fingerprints, no motive. They had nothing, and so manufactured evidence. They then gave the kid the lowliest public defender money could buy. When he was not in court, he was in a bar. They framed him, and Jim after his release was awarded $3.5 million for malicious prosecution. That part, the monetary award, is rare.
Part of the rationalization behind a case like Jim’s is this: “Well, the kid may not have done this crime, but he’s done others.” Putting him in jail for the wrong crime is not a big deal if he deserves to be in jail anyway.
In Dante’s Inferno, Satan is encased in ice. His anger has no outlet. I cannot imagine a worse fate than to be judged guilty by the smug, and to be without hope for justice.
By happenstance I was linked to the Innocence Project in real life. These are good people doing the right thing for the right reason.