Innocent Until Proven Guilty – Or so We Would Like to Believe

Not very often do I put down a book right when it starts to get good. However when it came to The Innocent Man by John Grisham I was so appealed at the injustices that I simply could right read any more.  I put this book on my summer reading list at the suggestion of one of my criminal justice professors. The book is about two murders that happen in the small town of Ada.  If you haven’t guessed by the title of the book, the murderers that are apprehended and placed on death row are innocent.  I have never supported capital punishment for many reasons.  The most prevalent of those reasons being its horrifying inaccuracy.  In the last 40 years there have been 142 death penalty exonerations (meaning the guilty was found innocent and released).  It is impossible to determine how many innocent people were put to death on top of the 142 that were exonerated.  However in many cases, exoneration evidence of innocence were found by chance.  So it is safe to say that for every lucky discovery of innocence, there is another innocent person put to death, and for every innocent person put to death there is another guilty person going unpunished.  So I knew going into this book that it was probably going to upset me, I just didn’t realize how much.

I had gotten to the part of book where they began the investigation of the second murder (after not having much of a lead on the first murder). The police brought in for questioning two guys Karl and Tommy who were suspects based on the hearsay of small town gossip.  The three cops began to interrogate Tommy first.  His interrogation lasted an entire day with no breaks.  During his day long interrogation Tommy was verbal, mentally, and emotionally harassed and physically threatened.  Of course the cameras were not turned on during this process.  The cameras were finally turned on when Tommy agreed to come up with a confession on the promise that he would be released if he did.  Tommy figured it was his only way for the cops to let him go and that any good detective and judge would be able to see through his obvious lies.  Tommy was not released, and a few days later Karl went through the same brutal interrogation process. There were many discrepancies between Karl and Tommy’s confessions as well as many obvious lies, but the police and entire town had already assumed them guilty.  Tommy and Karl spent the next year in jail while the police searched for any hard evidence that would support the confessions.  After a year of finding no evidence, it was decided to proceed with the trial and prosecute based solely on their faux and forced confessions.  Confessions that should have never been admissible in a court of law.  Hopt v. Utah ruled that any confession obtained based on the accused hopes and fears deprives the accused of his ability to voluntarily confess, and therefore is not admissible.  Bram v. United States ruled that all confessions must be free and voluntary and not extracted by any sort of threats, violence, or promises, however slight.  Any confession obtained this way is not admissible in a court of law.  Blackburn v. Alabama ruled that a prolonged interrogation is considered a type of psychologically coercion.  Miranda v. Arizona ruled that a suspect has a constitutional right not to be compelled to talk, and any statement made during an interrogation cannot be used in court unless that police and prosecutor can prove that the suspect clearly understood their rights.  So even if Tommy and Karl’s confessions had been true, they still would have been a constitutional nightmare.  However despite the discrepancies between the two confessions and the lack of evidence to back up the confessions, the trial date was set.  The defense attorneys requested that the trial be held at a non-partial venue and were denied.  A biased jury was selected of people who knew and were sympathetic to the murder victim and who had already made up their mind about Tommy and Karl’s guilt.  Tommy and Karl were sentenced to the death sentenced.  After that I was too horrified to keep reading.

After spending a year and a half working the in penitentiary and witnessing the injustices there, I couldn’t bear to see any more corruption in the criminal justice system.  Not exactly encouraging for someone who just decided to go to law school in a year.  I wish that I could dismiss this as a one time injustice, but the statistics on capital punishment disagree (and they don’t even include non-capital punishment inmates that could also be innocent).  How does this happen in a nation that promotes fairness and justice and innocence until proven guilty?  In the case of Tommy and Karl, it happens when we become so desperate for answers and someone to blame that we ignore the obvious facts in front of us.  It can happen when we are too quick to assume someone is guilty, or too quick too assume someone is innocent and blame the wrong person.  It can happen when we believe what the media and everyone else tells us to believe,  instead of looking at the facts objectively for ourselves.  Too often we are quick to claim an opinion on something that we really know nothing about, and then we become blind by our opinions.  So do not be so quick to assume you know all the facts and jump on the band wagon.  Think for yourself instead of believing everything you are told, and realize that there might be more to a case or to a person than meets the eye.  After all if it were you on trial and the only one believing your innocence, wouldn’t you want someone to do the same for you?

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One thought on “Innocent Until Proven Guilty – Or so We Would Like to Believe

  1. I wondered why you had not returned the book yet (I hope you finish it!)…Great article about injustice – as you near law school, I have another book titled “Justice” by Michael Sandel which discusses all of the various reasons for justice/injustice – a must read. Never stop fighting for justice, not just criminal justice, all justice – too many people fail to fight for it…

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