Justice at the Justice Department

Does it seem ridiculous that prosecutors would force defendants who entered into a plea agreement, often the only choice for those facing long prison sentences and little money to mount a credible defense, to waive their rights to future DNA testing that might result in their exoneration? Well, that is exactly the Faustian bargain that many faced in federal prosecutions since the Innocence Protection Act was passed by Congress during the Bush administration. So, someone facing the death penalty, even if innocent, to avoid the death chamber, could never pursue their innocence claims if they agreed to accept a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. OK, that sounds fair, doesn”t it?

In a move to bring a little justice to the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered the U.S. Attorneys throughout the country not to enforce the Bush-era regulation that ordered prosecutors to force defendants pleading guilty to sign away their rights to DNA testing.

While President Obama recently chose not to pardon or commute the sentences of anyone who might have been wrongfully convicted, at least his Justice Department has made a move in the right direction. New York Times editorial

There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit. Thousands more innocent men and women in our prisons likely accepted plea deals to avoid longer sentences and even the death penalty. According to most experts, in over 25 percent of all wrongful convictions, the defendants falsely confessed to a crime they did not commit. Damien Echols, on death row in the infamous West Memphis 3 case, has recently had his case reopened in a unanimous decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court based upon new DNA testing results that point to his innocence. Under this regulation, had he accepted a plea deal to avoid the death penalty, which was not offered to him at the time of his conviction at any rate, it would matter little that someone else”s DNA was found at the crime scene of the murder of three little boys in 1993, he would not be able to prove his innocence and would likely be forced to spend the rest of his life in prison even though innocent.

We must recognize that we have a broken criminal justice system that will imprison the innocent or even force them to make deals they are in no position to refuse. Prosecutors, whether in Suffolk County, New York, Jonesboro, Arkansas, or Washington D.C., will too often do anything to obtain a conviction with little regard for the administration of justice. Judges, either because they were once prosecutors or with an eye to their next election, will often go along with the prosecution rather than hold them to a standard of justice that protects the innocent and rightfully convicts the guilty.

Every day it seems we read about another wrongfully prosecuted individual freed from prison based upon new DNA or other evidence that proves their innocence, often decades after they were convicted. Recognizing that wrongful convictions happen, is it not time that prosecutors join with others in providing a minimum of protections such as videotaping police interrogations, to ensure the guilty go to prison and the innocent go home?

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