Day 276 Question 276:
Is our judicial system completely corrupt?
So the other night I was at the gym and while I trekked away on the elliptical I started watching the show that was on the TV. I have no idea what the name of the show was but the subject matter concerned long-tern inmates that were going to get DNA tests to either prove their innocence or guilt. There were 2 men being filmed but I only caught one story. This one man was arrested in 1982 and charged with 3 counts of rape and several other sexual assault charges. He was sentenced to 30 years and when more information was supplied in court another 10 years was tacked on. This man plead innocent from the very beginning and continued pleading innocent throughout the entire trial and prison time. After 26 years DNA evidence found that this man was indeed innocent and they even found out who the real criminal was. A million questions were going through my head. Here is a man that served 26 years for a crime he did not commit. He was ripped from his family (his wife was pregnant when he was put in jail) and of course lost his job. He lost society as a whole and for 26 years he sat in a concrete block. Does he simply get released with a pat on the back and an “Im Sorry”? How does this man start to function in a society that has changed so drastically over the last 26 years? How is he possibly going to get a job? Is the judicial system at all afraid that this man might have built up resentment and go on a killing spree? I meditate twice a day and I would like to think I am a pretty relaxed person but if my life is stolen from me like this mans was, I can only imagine the anger that has the potential to build up. I wrote a post on Facebook to find out what information people knew about the subject and the answers that I received were quite interesting. This was my post:
Ok I have a question. Say someone was sentenced to 50 years in prison and claimed to be innocent and after 30 years the justice system found out that he was….besides releasing him do they do ANYTHING for him? What would that be? Money, free therapy so he doesn’t go on a killing spree from being pissed from being wrongfully sentenced, a house, a job????
These were the comments I received:
Charles: That’s the problem, measuring the debt owed.
Mike: I think they say “sorry ’bout that, bro” and high-five him on the way out.
Lori: I agree most states do nothing but I would hope they would at least help them with an occupation since being out of work force for so long… monetary wise it would be nice but I can’t see most states with budgets doing that. There’s no accidental “put someone in jail” insurance coverage
Diane: Its just so crazy. I feel like some people would be so angry about it that once they were out they’d go on a killing spree.
Charles: I don’t think it’s as much the monetary restitution but to be recognized again as being honest and trustworthy. A reaffirmation of their dignity.
Loran: If you’re in Texas…they execute you anyway
Lee: Leave him in prison. The American justice system isn’t designed to reform or reintegrate individuals back into society. After 30 years in prison, his mind is so warped that he’ll have a better chance of navigating the prison society he’s come to know. (I’m playing devil’s advocate here people, calm down)
Diane: I kept thinking about how difficult it would be to get acclimated into society after that long.
Lee: I doubt the justice system would ever admit it’s wrong; doing so would undermine its authority. Therefore, the bureaucratic machine would suggest that the individuals lawyers didn’t do a sufficient job OR that the appeals process is designed to allow for such an event to occur. The system believes it is perfect; therefore spending 30 years in prison was all part of the process.
One of my friends even left me a link to the article below to give me a better idea of what happens to the wrongfully accused. The topic at hand is not really so much rehabilitation as it is the judicial system and how corrupt it can really be. I believe there are prisoners that are confined that would not stand a chance for rehabilitation but I do believe there are some that have had no opportunities in life that have great potential but for someone to be wrongfully convicted then either kept in jail in order to not deal with the problem or thrown onto the streets left with the words good luck is just so morally and ethically wrong. It makes me wonder how much of our judicial system is like this and how many times cases have been botched because no one really wanted to deal with the long-term work that would need to be done. Our countries financial state is in the toilet and here we have innocent men and women sitting in jails raking up more and more cost.
The Price of Freedom: What Happens to the Wrongfully Convicted?
On May 21, 1980, Katherina Reitz Brow was stabbed to death in her home in Ayer, Massachusetts. Three years later, the man accused of the crime was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That man, Kenneth (“Kenny”) Waters, would serve eighteen years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
Kenny’s story doesn’t end there. He appealed his sentence a number of times unsuccessfully. Frustrated at the process and convinced of his innocence, his older sister, Betty Anne Waters, went back to school and earned her college degree and a law degree. Nearly two decades after his conviction, Kenny Waters was set free.
At trial, most of the evidence against Kenny had been circumstantial and, it was alleged, marred by false testimony and bungled police work. Betty Anne believed that DNA evidence, which had previously been withheld from the defense team, would be the key factor in his release. She worked with lawyers from the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, to have an independent lab examine the evidence. That DNA proved what Betty Anne knew: her brother did not kill Katherina Brow.
Waters’ extraordinary story attracted attention from Hollywood and was eventually made into a feature film, Conviction, starring Hillary Swank. His story is, however, not completely unique. Studies suggest that between 2.3% and 5% of those sitting in U.S. prisons are actually innocent; since 1989, more than 250 people in 34 states have been exonerated and released from prison through post-conviction DNA testing.
What happens to those folks whose lives have been turned upside down after a wrongful conviction? In addition to the years of lost time with friends and family, they walk into a world that may be completely different than before they were sent away. Some have never seen or used a cell phone and are wowed by a world that includes gadgets like iPads and Nooks. Others may be looking forward to things you don’t expect: in Kenny’s case, “He couldn’t wait to go to a Home Depot. He had never been to such a big store before.”
Most, however, walk out to slim prospects and empty pockets. Up to 40% of those released from prison after being wrongfully incarcerated receive no compensation.
Some states – and the federal government in some circumstances – now offer compensation to exonorees. Many do not. Those that do not currently offer compensation to the wrongfully convicted are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming.
Even those that do offer compensation may impose limits that make them essentially meaningless. New Hampshire, for example, caps compensation at $20,000 and Louisiana caps compensation at $250,000 irrespective of the length of time served. Montana only provides educational aid.
Florida became the most recent state to make news when it debated a bill that would grant William Dillon compensation in the amount of $1.35 million for spending 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit (that works out to $50,000 per year). That approaches the Innocence Project’s recommendations which suggest a “minimum of $50,000, untaxed, per year of wrongful imprisonment and $100,000, untaxed, per year on death row” based on the federal government’s standard created through the Innocence Protection Act of 2004.
Currently, what compensation is payable may be subject to federal income taxes. The law can be confusing depending on how the compensation is classified, an issue that some in Congress want to see resolved. This year, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) introduced H.R.4241, Wrongful Convictions Tax Relief Act of 2012. The purpose of the bill is to exclude from gross income “any civil damages, restitution, or other monetary award (including compensatory or statutory damages and restitution imposed in a criminal matter) relating to the incarceration of such individual” who was exonerated. The bill currently sits in committee.
I talked with Stephen Saloom, the policy director at Innocence Project, about the bill. It doesn’t make sense, he pointed out, to tax funds paid to the wrongfully convicted as compensation from the government for taking years from their lives; it was as if they were being punished again. Saloom said that the bill was meant to “clarify” the notion that the compensation was not meant to be taxed.
I asked Saloom whether he found it odd that the bill would come out of Texas, which has become quite notorious for its high rates of wrongful convictions: since 1994, Texas has released at least thirty-nine innocent people who had collectively served over 500 years in prison for crimes they did not commit (report downloads as a pdf). Saloom was quick to say that he didn’t find it incongruent at all, noting that Texas had been working in recent years to change many of its policies and is, in fact, a leader in wrongful conviction reform. Today, the Lone Star State has one of the highest levels of compensation for the wrongfully convicted with options that include job and vocational training.
I wondered, then, if there was a political divide on the matter. Surprisingly, Saloom says that this is an issue that has broad, bipartisan support. He has found that folks, no matter their political persuasion, are disturbed at the idea of sending the wrong person in jail. “Nobody,” he says, “wants to see a wrongful conviction.”
And if being wrongfully convicted is bad enough, not being compensated for the resulting damages is similarly repugnant. There is a fairly universal sense that some how, this thing that was so grossly unfair should be made better, that these folks deserve a second chance at happiness.
Sadly, Kenny’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. Six months after he was released from prison – having spent a third of his life behind bars – he died in a tragic accident.
Katharina Brow’s real murderer has never been found.