Sunday, July 20, 2008

Guilty...until proven innocent

Think about the last 27 years.

If you're my age, that's the majority of your life. In my younger years, we used to talk about the changes our grandparents had seen over their lifetime. But, truly, the last 27 years have been no less amazing.

We now have cell phones...3-D video games...high speed (and small) computers and those are just the technology advancements.

Along with all of the new technology, of course, jobs have changed as well. Even jobs at fast food restaurants require a basic knowledge of technology. What you have to know in order to get a job is very different than it was 27 years ago.

Imagine being frozen in time for those 27 years. What do you do when you wake up today? What kind of clothes do you wear? How do you quickly acquire new job skills in order to work and survive? If you knew anything about computers at the time, they were probably large main frame computers that filled an entire room. How do you learn to function in a world that most jobs require online submission of resumes and applications? How do you even know where you're going...since major land development has restructured the entire landscape since you were last familiar with it?

Some people are in that very situation.

James Woodard served 27 years of time in prison for a murder charge...a crime he didn't commit.

Billy Smith served 19 years for sexual assault...a crime he didn't commit.

Charles Chapman was misidentified in a photo lineup and served 27 years for rape...a crime he didn't commit.

How can I be so sure? Because DNA evidence cleared them.

In Dallas County, DNA evidence has cleared these three men, along with 15 others. The Innocence Project, Dallas DA Craig Watkins, and Dallas Judge John Creuzot are working tirelessly to reclaim fairness and justice in our "justice" system.

So far in Texas 33 people have been exonerated on account of DNA evidence...a total of 427 years of innocent time served!!

How did this happen?
  • 82% were misidentified (supposed eye witness accounts)
  • 18% convicted on false forensic testimony
  • 15% convicted on "snitch" testimony
  • 9% gave false confessions to reduce their time
  • I didn't catch the percentage, but others were simply prosecutorial misconduct (despite our "justice" system)
Finally, there are people in office who are listening. Finally, there are people in office who recognize that our system isn't always "just" to everyone. But more than that...they are not just listening. They are using their position in our goverment to create create fairness.

Saturday evening, Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson convened a panel including Chairman of the House John Conyers, Houston Senator Rodney Ellis, DA Craig Watkins, co-founder of the Innocence Project, Jeff Blackburn, and the exonerees.

Part of their purpose was to listen. They wanted to know, "Where do we start? How do we dig in?" ...and they wanted to hear from people who had been directly affected.

Several spoke about moving our prison system from a punishment system to a restoration system with one person explaining..."because they will be out eventually."

Judge Creuzot brought up the fact that we need a process that will allow formerly incarcerated individuals to move on once they are released. (currently, convicted felons who have already served their time have little ability to get jobs or even find places to live...yet we expect them to come out and be productive members of society and are irritated when they aren't...without realizing why).

An attorney thought it was necessary and crucial that our system begin to fund well-paid, criminal defense, court-appointed attorneys due to the fact that low-income people are many times provided with the least competent attorneys (since more capable attorneys want to profit from their expertise).

In combination with that, others talked about the need for federal mandates to fix the system because we don't have the will to do it on our own.

Evidently some people are angered by the efforts to reform the system. Evidently, it sounds better when prosecutors, judges, and politicians talk about being "tough on crime"--the more convinctions, the better we feel. However, it's also important to realize that for every wrongful conviction, the real criminal goes free.

This is an issue that affects all of us...not just in Texas. Dallas happens to have kept more evidence over the years than most places...which has now allowed for 18 wrongful convictions (to date) to be overturned based on the evidence. Other states and counties have not been immune to these wrongful convictions...but may not have the evidence needed to overturn the cases as readily.

This is an issue we would all be better for if we educated ourselves and got involved. Unfortunately, most of the cases are having to be re-opened by people outside of the system. The lack of will of our political system, at this point, has not provided the funds, despite the mistakes made.

If you would like to help this effort continue, donate to The Innocence Project, write your congressperson, and do what you can to help fix the system.
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