Among the most powerful people in the justice system are prosecutors and the judges to whom they present their cases. The way our system is set up, judges must rely on whatever facts a prosecutor puts forth inside their courtroom.
It is the prosecutor who weighs the evidence police have gathered and then decides who is charged with a crime. They are the authors of the storyline presented to a jury in a criminal court. Prosecutors are the ones who suggest a sentence for the convicted — from a few years to life in prison or even death by state execution. Prosecutors hold the key every step of the way.
Let the record show that prosecutors are not perfect. Neither are the investigators who feed them case information. Over the years, prosecutors have convicted the wrong people in thousands of criminal cases nationwide. And history shows that their offices, the law enforcement agencies they work with and judges who hear the cases have traditionally been loath to admit their mistakes. This results in unjustly convicted people continuing to serve time they should never have been sentenced to serve in the first place.
The National Registry of Exonerations keeps track of those who have been set free and reports that since 1989, at least 2,522 convicts have been officially exonerated. The duration of their unwarranted imprisonment totals more than 22,300 years. Many of them were sentenced to life without parole, and some have been imprisoned for more than four decades. A majority of these prisoners are black males falsely charged with crimes like murder, rape, robbery and drug offenses. Their personal stories of unnecessary incarceration, prison violence and missed family milestones would break your heart.
Every year, more mistaken convictions are added to the roster — caused by flawed science, misinformation from rogue cops, overeager prosecutors or uncaring judges — proving that wrongful prosecutions aren't just an occasional fluke but a shameful flaw in our justice system. It makes one wonder just how many more innocent people remain behind bars.
Yes, there are legions of truly dedicated civil servants working in law enforcement, but realize that with every unwarranted conviction comes a ripple effect of indescribable family pain that should not be ignored.
Progress is slow, but more and more wrongful convictions are being reversed.
There are two main catalysts. One: Innocence projects at universities and nonprofit organizations are laboriously piecing together old cases and discovering definitive new evidence. Their findings of serious police and/or prosecutorial misconduct, perjury of key witnesses and even confessions from others have surfaced years after the original conviction. New, more sophisticated DNA testing has also helped win the release of dozens of wrongly convicted citizens.
Two: District attorneys' offices are establishing Conviction Integrity Units, or CIUs, specifically set up to look back at disputed convictions. Today, there are nearly 60 such units across the country, marking a major shift in the traditional prosecutorial focus on simply winning convictions. In these units, the emphasis is on the true facts of the case and justice for the victim.
"You take an oath to seek justice," Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner told The Washington Post. "That means innocent people go home. It also means, if you have an innocent person in jail, the guilty one got away." Krasner, a veteran defense attorney, won election last year, and since then, his CIU has enabled 10 wrongly convicted murder defendants to walk free and have their record erased.
Earlier this month, Marilyn Mosby, the state's attorney in Baltimore, Maryland, won exoneration for three men erroneously convicted of murdering a student 36 years ago. "The system failed you," Mosby told the trio. "You should never have seen the inside of a jail cell." That brought to nine the number of former prisoners now walking free due to Mosby's efforts.
In Detroit, Michigan, the prosecutor's Conviction Integrity Unit, set up two years ago, has helped secure the release of 11 prisoners. This continues a pre-CIU trend in Michigan of dozens of convicts having been exonerated including a record-breaking 14 in 2017.
There isn't one state in the union that has a perfect prosecutorial record, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. But now Texas, New York, Illinois and California lead the way in ferreting out and overturning inaccurate convictions. Bravo!
It isn't easy for prosecutors to admit their office convicted the wrong person. It is equally tough for police officers or judges to admit they made a mistake in a past criminal case. But it is the right thing for them to do.
If prosecutors in your state aren't focused on reviewing cases in which there is a chance justice was not served, there is something wrong. For every innocent person locked up, there is the strong possibility that the real killer, rapist or career criminal is still out on the streets. That's not justice; that's playing Russian roulette with the citizenry.
Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist and television reporter of high-profile court cases.