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You have the right to die
July 14, 2003 6:35 AM   Subscribe

(NYT) The death row trifecta: juvenile, retarded and ... proved innocent by DNA testing
But unlike other trifectas, this one will not necessarily get you off the hook. Never mind that the real perpetrator has been identified (due to his prison yard bragging initially and through a DNA perfect match later). One of the great problems of the American criminal justice system is that once an innocent person is trapped in the system, it's extremely difficult to get him — or her — extricated.
posted by magullo (29 comments total)

 
Is there coverage of how Matthews was implicated to begin with?
posted by delapohl at 7:01 AM on July 14, 2003


That's awful.

Proverbs 17:15 Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent- the LORD detests them both.
posted by aaronshaf at 7:16 AM on July 14, 2003


Brief coverage of the trial

On the second day the State presented evidence until 10pm at night. The defense then moved to rest, however the Judge denied the request, instead ordering the prosecution and defense to make their closing statement. The defense then moved to rest again, which similarly was denied: The jurors were then sent to deliberate. At 4.20 am the jury sent a note to the judge stating that they were unable to reach a verdict. The judge ordered them to continue. Just 40 minutes later at 5am the jury returned a verdict of guilty. The fairness of a verdict reached by a jury with no sleep after over 14 hours of listening to evidence and deliberating in a single day is clearly questionable.
posted by loukas_c at 7:18 AM on July 14, 2003


Simple - the judge didn't want a trial to drag out. He put his own needs over the requirements of justice and the life of an apparently innocent man. Issues of race aside, this was not just a miscarriage of justice, but a speedy miscarriage of justice.

Here's a bunch of questions - we had DNA testing capabilities in 1997. Why wasn't the mask tested then? Is DNA testing just not performed? Who decides when DNA testing is to be performed - is it up to the courts, or the plaintiff, or the defendant? Is it somehow cost-justified?

I'm always curious about how, after N number of years in prison, someone is released because DNA testing either introduces a strong doubt of guilt or actually proves innocence. Since we can do it now, why aren't we doing it in every case where organic material can be recovered as evidence? Yep, it's expensive - but so's several years in prison (not to mention the inestimable value of a prisoner's life.)
posted by FormlessOne at 8:23 AM on July 14, 2003


Conviction rate -- and consequently 'death rate' -- is pretty much the only measure by which a prosecutor can measure his success. 'Uncovering the truth' doesn't win you votes at election time.
posted by clevershark at 8:49 AM on July 14, 2003


Is there coverage of how Matthews was implicated to begin with?

I'm guessing it was a combination of being a poor, mentally less capable visible minority?
posted by clevershark at 8:52 AM on July 14, 2003


clevershark, that's got to change. Putting the wrong person in prison left a murderer free to kill again, which he did. It's time to realize that locking up the innocent makes even those on the outside less safe, without even getting into what it does to the incarcerated innocent.
posted by NortonDC at 9:22 AM on July 14, 2003


I couldn't agree more... only there's a great discrepancy between the way things should work and they way they do work.
posted by clevershark at 9:34 AM on July 14, 2003


In a perfect world (ie., one that I dominate), the judge in this case would be dragged out into the street by the Secret Police and shot. The prosecutors would be responsible for cleaning up the mess and properly disposing of the body.
posted by aramaic at 10:10 AM on July 14, 2003


aramaic, you get creativity points for making bloody executions a part of your utopia.
posted by eddydamascene at 10:23 AM on July 14, 2003


Correct me if I'm wrong, but innocence is not grounds for having a conviction overturned, you have to show that there was some error in the way the court case was carried out. This sounds more like the sort of thing a state pardon is suppossed to be used for.

To contrast, in Canada whenever someone is found out to be falsely convicted, they are often compensated (sometimes in the millions of dollars) and there are apologies made, and most importantly an independent inquiry is usually held. All the evidence is looked over again and witnesses and police are brought back again and interviewed to find out what went wrong, and recomendations are made to improve the justice system.
posted by bobo123 at 10:33 AM on July 14, 2003


he'll get out. chill.
posted by angry modem at 10:37 AM on July 14, 2003


Offhand, bobo, I'd say that solid evidence of innocence is de facto evidence of "error in the way the court case was carried out," if only by demonstrating incompetance of one or more lawyers/judges/policemen.

Of course IANAL, your milage may vary, not valid if prohibited by local statute. ;-)
posted by ilsa at 10:38 AM on July 14, 2003


From the IJP link (thanks loukas_c):

The police arrested Matthews later that evening in a car matching the description of the getaway car; however, the passenger side window could not be wound down and had been broken for as long as anyone could remember.

Cynical generalizations aside, this poor guy's arrest, conviction, and death sentence must have been based on more than being in a vehicle that [poorly] matches the getaway car.

* googles around *

Ok, this article has a bit more info. Two witnesses ID'd Matthews at the scene, and the convicted driver of the getaway car told police that he drove Matthews to the store. (Weighed against the non-functioning car window, a five-inch height discrepancy, and the DNA evidence.)

Stories that fail to anticipate and address basic questions from their readers frustrate the bejeebers me. I guess a brief recap of the original case would have been off-message for the NYTimes piece?
posted by delapohl at 10:57 AM on July 14, 2003


bobo that's only true of the appeals process, for a case to be overturned on appeal you must prove some point of law was applied improperly. Evidence contradicting an initial conviction is something else. The issue here is that our court system does not have a real method for exonerating the wrongly convicted.

Interseting case but this article sucks. It doesn't really cover the real issue surrounding the difficulties of getting someone innocently convicted out of prison.
posted by bitdamaged at 11:01 AM on July 14, 2003


Two witnesses ID'd Matthews at the scene, and the convicted driver of the getaway car told police that he drove Matthews to the store.

I did jury duty on a murder case once, and it proved to me how dicey eyewitness testimony can be. But when the eyewitnesses are the victim's best friends, AND they're sitting outside the courtroom when you're let out at the (hung jury) conclusion, it's hard to look them in the eye.
posted by wendell at 11:16 AM on July 14, 2003


...bobo123, you forgot to extend that comparison:

"And then the recommendations are ignored, forgotten, or not implemented in any meaningful way."

Yep, leave it to us Canadians to spend buckets of cash on a commission or two rather than make any meaningful change. Because, you know, that way it at least looks like we give a damn.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:21 AM on July 14, 2003


"And then the recommendations are ignored, forgotten, or not implemented in any meaningful way."

Well yes, but it's the principle of the thing...
posted by bobo123 at 11:35 AM on July 14, 2003


There seems to be a way to deal with that sort of thing -- make individual prosecutors legally liable for this sort of thing.

Also, prosecutorial misconduct should be a criminal offense, not just a civil one. I think some DAs would think twice before bending the rules if there was a chance they could end up in the same place to which they have sent countless others.
posted by clevershark at 12:33 PM on July 14, 2003


I wish it were that simple but that kind of situation would just make prosecuters wary of prosecuting cases on weak evidence even if they think the person is truly guilty.

The best way I can think of fixing this is looking at our public defender system. The majority of PD's on cases are far underpaid and overworked (heck DA's too) and this is where these kind of situations get railroaded through.
posted by bitdamaged at 1:19 PM on July 14, 2003


I wish it were that simple but that kind of situation would just make prosecuters wary of prosecuting cases on weak evidence even if they think the person is truly guilty

Why would that in any way, shape, or form be even a hint of thinking about being a possibly-bad thing? I'd love to live in that world, where prosecutors followed the actual no-kidding evidence instead of their own half-assed hunches and feelings and prejudices.

That said, I suspect that stomping on prosecutorial misconduct would primarily result in prosecutors being more careful, thorough, and ruthless about suppressing exculpatory evidence.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:11 PM on July 14, 2003


Why are DAs elected in the US in the first place? It seems to me to be more of a technical position than a political one.
posted by signal at 2:23 PM on July 14, 2003


For those interested in a well made documentary that relates to this, check out Errol Morris' A Thin Blue Line.
posted by fezdel at 3:59 PM on July 14, 2003


Why are DAs elected in the US in the first place?

Not really any good reason. We elect everything else in separate elections, often including judges, so what's one more mistake?

Real reason: tradition of suspicion-of-government. There used to be a saying that tyranny began where annual elections ended, and this is part of the legacy of that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:39 PM on July 14, 2003


So when you commit a crime, make sure you leave abit of someone elses DNA at the scene (not so hard). Also be sure to take every convicts bragging as absolute truth, since them folks are always so honest and honorable.
posted by HTuttle at 5:20 PM on July 14, 2003


no htuttle, you have to combine those steps.

You have to leave behind the DNA of someone you know will brag about commiting the crime where you left the DNA...
posted by Iax at 5:56 PM on July 14, 2003


htuttle, besides the steps iax outlined, you must also be sure not leave any of your DNA at the scene.

To contrast, in Canada whenever someone is found out to be falsely convicted, they are often compensated (sometimes in the millions of dollars)

The system is so crazy that they may well fry (or poison) the guy and then be forced to compensate the family in millions of dollars.

This is the kind of case that reinforces to position of countries (as mine) that refuse to extradited criminals to the US if they may be condemned to death there.
posted by nkyad at 7:47 PM on July 14, 2003


Twenty years for nothin', that's nothin' new
No-one's interested in something you didn't do

posted by arto at 12:04 AM on July 15, 2003


For those who were wondering about the role of innocence in American jurispridence, here is what Justice Scalia has said: "Claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence have never been held to state a ground for federal habeas relief absent an independent constitutional violation occurring in the course of the underlying state criminal proceedings." In other words, being innoncent and having new evidence of that is not sufficient to get you freed after conviction; you must also prove there were other problems with the trial
posted by TedW at 11:57 AM on July 15, 2003


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