ethel’s words

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CONVICTING THE INNOCENT

In most criminal prosecutions it is easier to convict the innocent than the guilty. The guilty person, knowing the circumstances of the crime, has insight that helps him/her create a strong defense.

If Caryl Chessman had been guilty, he would have been able to defend himself--he would have known that the crime was a two-person crime, a fact that was made public after he was executed. (Prosecutors are now prohibited from hiding evidence.)

The almost-stupefying (even to me) number of innocents cleared (sometimes after half a lifetime in prison) by DNA evidence, must cause someone, SOMEONE, to wonder about possible innocence in crimes that involve no such handy sleeping evidence. Those of us who care enough to wonder, ask, why do such tragic mistakes occur, and can something be done to lessen their frequency?

Where is the Power that puts persons in prison? I think of the police. (Never mind the upper-echelon crimes--they don’t go to prison anyway.)

The police, the whole array of specialized officers today, are the first structure of Power. It is they who decide which laws to enforce; they who observe, arrest, gather or fail to gather evidence; who have first shot at destroying, fabricating, or ignoring evidence; first opportunity to intimidate, or worse, in coercing incriminating statements.

Next comes the prosecutor (in the absence of grand jury practice). The prosecutor decides whether to prosecute. He has to trust the evidence that is presented to him, but he has discretion in whether to use all or part of it.

Note:
This essay has been written by a lay person who has observed--as a lay person--criminal justice administration for seventy years, with a little formal study. There may be technical flaws in the descriptions of procedures--practices change. Unfortunately, they don’t change enough.

It does appear that the cure for mistakes consists of better education, more respect for ethics, devotion to ideals of justice, and just simple honesty. There is a lot of all of these qualities, but they are not universal. Police officers, in their position of supreme power, should be better paid, better educated in human behaviors and cultures. They should be rewarded for excellence in policing and human relations, not just the dramatic heroism that all of them would display when needed.

There are Powers that could modify police power, but those Powers think twice.

Ethel C. Hale