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May 16, 2008




The justice system in the US is perhaps the fairest, and most developed and effective in the world.  It is the gold standard by which others are to be measured.  Too often, however, the discussion ends here.  The problem is: it should be much better and few of our leaders or people in the mainstream media are spending a lot of time talking about it.

A few nights ago I read a story that chilled me to the bone.  In “Ex-Officer Tells Court He Covered up Botched Raid” (AP, 5/13/08) a sad chapter in the history of the town where I attended law school (Atlanta, GA) is revisited.

To refresh your memory, this story involves the case of the 92-year old woman who was shot 39 times during a fraudulent drug raid.  This was a “no knock” raid; typically when serving a search warrant law enforcement officers are required to “knock and announce.”  She managed to squeeze off one round as these unknown intruders burst through her door.

Normally, this would just be an unfortunate ending to a mistake by well-intentioned people trying to do their jobs.  However, one of the officers involved has testified that the premise for the whole raid was concocted out of thin air.

In fact, according to the article his attorney said that the “narcotics unit…routinely planted drugs and lied to obtain search warrants.”  ROUTINELY FABRICATED EVIDENCE AND LIED!!!!

This is the problem.

After reading this article I quickly reviewed the stories and events I had read or heard about over the years that touched on these issues.  I spent about an hour googling and researching.  I used to be outraged at this type of story as an idealistic young college student.  I guess somewhere along the way I got jaded—perhaps it hurt too much to take it all in.  This is what I found:

Wrongful convictions, police and prosecutorial misconduct are prevalent in our society and no one is doing anything about it.  It’s not a story out of our dark past, it’s ongoing.  There are no doubt thousands of innocent people locked up or walking the streets with their hidden scars.

This is on the heels of the 17th Dallas, TX convict going free on DNA evidence that established their innocence (just some of hundreds of cases nationwide).

Just a cursory review leads to the finding that at least two forensic crime lab supervisors have routinely botched tests on evidence and lied in court.  Their names are Fred Zain (in West Virginia) and Joyce Gilchrist (in Oklahoma; who is black, by the way) (see “Junk Science, Junk Evidence,” a New York Times story from 5/11/01; and CNN story from 5/1/01).  If these were supervisors, what was the culture like that they encouraged throughout the labs?

There are a string of false conviction cases that turned on the inflated and exaggerated testimonies of forensic “experts” from Montana all the way to the famed crime lab in Virginia, and even the FBI where an analyst was fired in 2004.

This isn’t the first time that the FBI lab (the one that jurisdictions all across America used before they built their own labs) has been criticized for being tools of the police and prosecution.  In 1995 an FBI lab whistleblower revealed misconduct that affected the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombing investigations.  Just last fall, the FBI was caught defending a scientifically unsound theory on bullet lead analysis that they had been using in court for years (“Evidence of Injustice," CBS News story from 11/18/07).

From botched fingerprint or hair analysis to hundreds of boxes of old evidence mysteriously “found” in Texas the lapses in America’s justice system are jaw dropping (see “Scandal Touches Even Elite Labs,” a Chicago Tribune story from 11/21/04—long and disturbing).  The wrongful conviction cases that hinged on eyewitness testimony could fill a book and prove that this is also often some of the least reliable “evidence.”

But it gets worse.

To date Chicago, IL and its environs stand alone as America’s sewer of injustice.  Several years ago the governor was forced to suspend all executions because of the inherent unreliability of the justice system in the state.

Two years ago a special investigation confirmed that torture and beatings was a prominent feature of interrogations for the Chicago police for decades.  Prosecutors found “credible evidence” in approximately 70 cases that they looked at (“Report on Chicago Police Torture is Released,” New York Times 7/19/06).  Remarkably, no prosecutions were undertaken because of the statute of limitations.  The county’s top prosecutor for much of this time?  None other than Richard Daley, Chicago’s mayor and the son of the former mayor of the same name.

Why doesn't federal law mandate that all law enforcement interrogations be videotaped?

But, it’s worse.  In a shocking five-part exposť in 1999 the Chicago Tribune blew the lid off of the whole prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions cover-up (see American Society of Criminolgy site maintained on the Northern Illinois University web site for links to republished stories).  That’s right; this is essentially a cover-up.  Few want to lift up the shade and see the whole truth.

At the end of the 20th century, the series was able to document an incredible 381 homicide convictions over the course of 36-years in America that were reversed because prosecutors “knowingly used false evidence or withheld evidence suggesting the defendant’s innocence” ("Prosecution on Trial in DuPage") Out of all this malfeasance only two cases were brought, and both indictments were dismissed before trial.  This type of behavior is against the code of ethics for lawyers and should result in disbarment.

But what happens?  The reward for railroading the innocent is being promoted!  It turns out that prosecutors who have been caught doing this are the most effective; obviously suggesting that they’ve done it far more times than they’ve been caught.  Even more troubling than this is the fact that some of those who were part of these injustices as prosecutors are now the judges deciding how to address this situation (“Blind Justices,” a Chicago Reader story from 12/1/06).

The worst case, perhaps, occurred outside of Chicago in DuPage County.  The case involved a 10 year-old little girl who was tragically raped and murdered.  Three prosecutors and four sheriff deputies framed Rolando Cruz and two others.  This case is unusual because years after the fact these men were actually charged and tried.  But…you guessed it they were unbelievably acquitted despite their clear guilt.

I might remind the reader that last year the prosecutor who brought charges against three Duke University lacrosse players (white from prominent, wealthy families) was disbarred, jailed and is being sued.  Why doesn’t this happen when poor blacks and others are wrongly jailed, sometimes for decades?

How is this acceptable in the US?  Why do we avert our eyes and refuse to look at this mistreatment and corruption?  Why do white people accuse African Americans of exaggerating and being paranoid about racism given this country’s recent track record?  Why is the mainstream so quick to discount blacks as being untruthful?  Why aren’t white evangelicals preaching about this type of injustice?  And why haven’t our leaders and our judicial system done anything about this?

The belief that, because of our abundance, those in America who are suffering must have brought it on themselves is just plain wrong--as is obvious in just these few stories.

Aren’t we as Christians supposed to have compassion on those who are suffering?  I can think of little more painful than sitting in a jail cell when you haven’t done anything wrong.  Isn’t this whole thing (our faith) supposed to be about righteousness and justice (Mathew 23:23)?  Why aren’t you praying for these people who are innocent but wrongfully imprisoned?  Why aren’t we doing anything about it?

Why is it that so many of these injustices seem to be experienced by people of color?  The ambivalence of so many white evangelicals in the face of all of this evidence of discrimination makes it look like you agree with it.  Often, people say that oppression and extreme racism in America are aberrations, but every few months another shocking case rears its ugly head.

Given this, is it so surprising then that juries that are majority black often give black defendants the benefit of the doubt (e.g., Marion Barry and O.J. Simpson)?  Just last week in Philadelphia there was another taped police beat down in broad daylight.

If this is what I was able to find in an hour, what other gross miscarriages of justice are out there?  This is just the tip of the iceberg.  This heartbreaking tragedy lurks in the shadows and is only infrequently discussed or exposed in the mainstream media. 

Instead we hear a constant drumbeat of pabulum that says that America and our institutions are great.  Anyone who disagrees is tarred as being unpatriotic.  Perhaps on paper everything is rosy; and our material wealth is almost beyond compare.  But, the true facts of the matter are hidden.  The fact is, we are not paragons of virtue—none of us.  And this is the same story we get from the evangelical pulpit.  Too often this is a cocoon; a hidden world of make believe.

We are told that it’s always about the importance of law and order and public safety.  Really it’s about fear and revenge.  But if you believe in the Lord you’re not supposed to be afraid.  Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).  Vengeance is for the Lord (Romans 12:19). 

If we really believe in God and heaven why are we so afraid of dying that we tolerate injustices when often there is only a remote chance that they actually make us safer?  We should all have faith that the omnipotent God alone will protect us.


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