Some of Molly's choice morsels:
The notorious inability of prosecutors to admit that they are ever wrong is a fact of life. What is far more horrifying is the refusal of judges and courts to look at evidence that proves innocence. Can you imagine how that must feel - to be in prison for a crime you didn't commit and to finally be able to prove it, only to have a court refuse to consider the evidence?Ivins concludes by noting that in most instances, when an innocent person is released from death row, the case is not reopened -- meaning that for every such case, a murderer walks among us.
Most of this is a consequence of a noxious law that Congress rushed through after the Oklahoma City bombing. Called the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the law was aimed at the ability of federal judges to second-guess state courts and at the ability of prisoners to file endless habeas corpus claims challenging the constitutionality of their convictions. (Habeas corpus is a Latin phrase meaning "you have the body" and goes back hundreds of years in common law as well as being in the Constitution. It means that if you can show you were unfairly tried, you have a remedy through the courts.)
True, the right has been abused for nitpicking purposes by some lawyers, but to effectively abolish the right is a dreadful abrogation of freedom. Where in the world are the militia folks now that we need them? Where are all those right-wingers who claim freedom as their most cherished possession?
The trouble with the 1996 law is that it was poorly written and has been subject to conflicting interpretations by the lower courts. The law says that a federal judge can reverse a state court conviction only if it was contrary to federal law or if it applied federal law in an "unreasonable" way.
The Fourth Circuit, one of the most conservative courts in the country, has ruled that this means state courts have applied the law in ways that "all reasonable jurists would agree is unreasonable." As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out, reasonable jurists always disagree on constitutional issues.
The film "The Hurricane," with Denzel Washington, is about a case in point. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a contender for the middleweight boxing title, was wrongfully convicted of a 1966 triple murder. He spent 19 years in prison before he was finally released.
The movie depicts the conviction as a frame-up by one racist cop, but as Selwyn Rabb, who originally covered the story for The New York Times, wrote: "The actual story is more harrowing because it exposes an underlying frailty in a criminal justice system that convicted Mr. Carter not once but twice. The convictions were obtained not by a lone, malevolent investigator but by a network of detectives, prosecutors and judges who countenanced the suppression and tainting of evidence and the injection of racial bias into the courtroom."
Under current interpretations of the 1996 law, Hurricane Carter would not be free today.
The most thoughtful comment in the PBS documentary came from a law professor concerned about the criminal justice system's refusal to consider its own errors. He pointed out that in most other systems, when something goes horribly wrong - a plane falls from the sky, a type of car begins bursting into flames, a hospital patient dies from gross malpractice - there is a system in place to deal with the error. There are investigations, reports and ultimately corrections made to prevent recurrence.
In the criminal justice system, there are only denials and strenuous efforts to prevent the exculpatory evidence from being presented in court. The ease with which our criminal justice system can nail the wrong person has been painfully demonstrated time and again.
(Henry Lee Lucas, the serial liar, provided one of the most bizarre examples. He claimed to have committed more than 600 murders. Police in 26 states closed the books on 229 murders, and he was convicted of 11 of them before it occurred to anyone to wonder if he was telling the truth. Physical evidence against him was found in two cases. The state of Texas managed to convict him for a murder committed while he was quite demonstrably in another state and had to let him off Death Row.)