13 June 2007

American justice

Even if I did believe in capital punishment, which I categorically do not, I think I would have to be swayed by the statistics about prisoners who have been wrongfully condemned, and then proven innocent by DNA evidence. According to The Innocence Project, an organization committed to vindicating the wrongfully accused, "DNA testing has proven that 203 innocent people spent nearly 2,500 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit." And these are just the people whose case has included some kind of DNA evidence, whose evidence has been kept on file, whose files have been revisted.

I am thinking about this because I just listened to an episode of This American Life on the subject, an episode called "Perfect Evidence." It's heartbreaking. The first is "the story of how one tragedy becomes two." In brief, this is how it goes: in 1986, a young, white woman is raped and murdered in Chicago, and the murder is heavily covered on the media, so the pressure to find the killers is great. Four young boys are considered as suspects.

Under police pressure, one of them unwittingly signs a confession that gets him a lighter sentence (the police tell him if he signs, he "can go home"). It later turns out the "confession" is taken directly from a crime profiler's description of what he imagines the murder scene to be like. The police copy the profile nearly verbatim, stick it in front of a suspect, have him sign it, and call the case solved. The confession fingers the three other boys as well, who are all convicted, even though there is little physical evidence, and what physical evidence there is doesn't add up (the blood type of the semen found on the scene does not match the blood type of any of the four: an "expert" witness lies about this in court, implying that the blood type does match). They go to jail, and spend fifteen years appealing their case, while they routinely get beat up because their crime is considered so heinous by the other inmates. One of them is stabbed repeatedly with an ice pick.

One of the (no-longer) boys reads an article about DNA evidence and a lawyer who is working on cases like theirs. They contact the lawyer, who spends hundreds of hours and $50,000 of her own money to prove that these boys did not commit the crime they are in jail for. She is told the evidence had been destroyed, but finds a contact within the police department who retrieves and shows her the physical evidence. Finally, they are released.

The story of these kids is so amazing for several reasons. First, because of the messed-up way in which the police conduct the investigation and the legal system conducts the prosecution of the innocent. Second, and this impressed me even more, because they aren't cynical about it afterwards.

After being released from prison, this is what one of the guys, Omar Saunders, says about his perspective on the American system of justice: "...the concept and principles on which the country is founded has always been on our side." The interviewer, surprised, says that it seems like he actually has more respect for the system since he's been in jail. His reply?

"...it's a lack of understanding the system that caused it. It's like if the police do something to me, I ain't gonna say go blow up the whole Chicago police force, because you got a lot of good Chicago policemen. That's why I always...they, the media said that we got out and that we spoke vehemently against the system. I never spoke against the system. I love America! I understand that the system don't operate itself. It's people. There ain't nothing wrong... America got one of the greatest jurisprudence systems in the world. In some countries, when you do something, they kill you. That ain't nothing to talk about.

"See, so my whole view today is I understand that, if we want to make America a greater place, it's gonna take people like us, to understand what the nation is based on, and do what the founding fathers did, when they thought that their freedoms were being jeapordized, and that their rights were being infringed. You do that by knowing the law. When you don't know something, people can take advantage. This is a beautiful different kind of republic."

This second story on the episode is about a 14-year-old boy who confesses to the murder of his sister. Yet, he didn't do it, and fortunately, is never even convicted because the real killer is found before the trial. Ira Glass and an expert on police questioning listen to the tape of the police interrogating this poor boy. The policeman talking to him, in a slow, kind voice throughout, tells him they have a machine, a "computer stress voice indicator" that registers the "tremors" in his voice and can detect if he's lying (which does no such thing but is a common psychological interrogation tool used on the naïve or ignorant), then tell him that the machine shows he is lying about knowing whether he knows who killed his sister.

There are many references to the "hard cold science" of the situation, saying that "technology is on our side." The computer doesn't lie. (But of course, humans do.) After hours of interrogation, they tell him that they have found his sister's blood in his room. This freaks him out. By this point, the poor boy is absolutely broken, sobbing in the most wrenching way, and instead of believing himself, is convinced that he killed her without his knowing. He has "confessed." It was difficult even to listen to, and according to the academic Ira Glass has on the show with him, these kind of interrogation techniques are perfectly acceptable to the law and commonly used.

While the story of Saunders and his friends, despite it all, left me hopeful, the shuddering sobs of the boy who confesses to his sister's murder will stay with me for a long time.

The episode, first broadcast in April of 2002, can be listened to here on the This American Life webpage. The stories on This American Life--and lately I've been working through my TAL archives--have consistently left me bowled over, like nothing else I read or hear.

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