Top Five Reasons “Our” “Justice” System Is An EPIC FAIL
[blows out dust] Is this thing on?
JUSTICE SYSTEM’S got me down lately. You most likely have heard of the case of Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown. The two African American men released from death row 31 years after they were wrongly convicted on the basis of coerced confessions.
This case, as well as the dumb “10 Books Challenge” that has been circulating on Facebook, put me in mind of Bertrand Russell’s take on social power and the justice system, which we covered here at Stump Lane in looking at this all too similar case of wrongful conviction, imprisonment, and threat of death.
Rather than paste the whole Russell thing here again, let’s just select the juiciest nuggets and place them alongside Democracy Now!’s coverage of the McCollum and Brown case. And I suppose we should do so as a list, since that’s where web content has gone since we retired from ‘long form’ blogging.
- The institutions of law enforcement and justice are by their very nature corrupt:
RUSSELL: In every democracy, individuals and organizations which are intended to have only certain well defined executive functions are likely, if unchecked, to acquire a very undesirable independent power. This is especially true of the police.
PROF. STEVE DRIZIN, via Democracy Now!: [The simple presence of] the death penalty can corrupt the search for truth. Clearly, police officers coerced and threatened these suspects with the death penalty at the beginning. The prosecutor wore his death penalty convictions like notches on his belt in this case. And even the death penalty lawyers, two of the best death penalty lawyers I know of, they felt compelled to pressure Henry to confess to an expert, because they figured that they were going to—that Henry was going to get convicted after his case had been reversed, and that they needed him to confess in order to save his life. So the mere presence of the death penalty corrupted the search for truth at every single process of this case.
- Police and prosecutors are incentivized to convict the innocent:
RUSSELL: …a policeman is promoted for action leading to the conviction of a criminal … in consequence, it is to the interest of individual officers [to do whatever it takes to elicit a confession (or build their case).] … For the taming of the power of the police, one essential is that a confession shall never, in any circumstances, be accepted as evidence.
DRIZIN: …once they focused on McCollum, they brought him in and they grilled him relentlessly for hours. And they threatened him with the death penalty, and they promised him that he would go home. And they prepared a detailed written statement for him to sign. And at that point in time, as he says, “I would have pretty much signed anything in order to go home.”
- The most able instruments of state power are exclusively brought to bear against the accused:
RUSSELL: The whole of the resources of the State are set in motion to seek out possible witnesses against you, and the ablest lawyers are employed by the State to create prejudice against you in the minds of the jury. You, meanwhile, must spend your private fortune collecting evidence of your innocence, with no public organization to help you. If you plead poverty, you will be allotted Counsel, but probably not so able a man as the public prosecutor.
ATTY. VERNETTA ALSTON, via Democracy Now!: …law enforcement had requested that a fingerprint … found at the crime scene next to sticks with the victim’s blood on it … be compared to Roscoe Artis, whose DNA was found at the scene and who committed a very similar rape [and murder] three weeks later. … that request was made three days before Henry’s trial and was never carried out. And based on what we know now, that request was never divulged to Henry’s trial attorneys by the state. … [T]hese cases, in 1984, were prosecuted by Joe Freeman Britt, who was a notorious, notorious supporter of the death penalty and who secured between 40 and 50 death sentences during his tenure as district attorney. … what we’ve seen as a pattern in those cases is that he was incredibly reckless, to the point where all but two of his convictions, his death sentences, had been overturned. And the only two that haven’t are folks who have been executed. … that should signal a huge problem with all of his cases, in terms of what he’s turned over, what he hasn’t, in his own rush to judgment, in his own priorities in getting a conviction rather than seeking the truth.
- The resources the state does allow for defense are insufficient:
RUSSELL: If law-abiding citizens are to be protected against unjust persecution by the police, there must be two police forces … one designed, as at present, to prove guilt, the other to prove innocence; and in addition to the public prosecutor there must be a public defender, of equal legal eminence.
ALSTON: The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission … function[s] independent of … any prosecutorial agencies or any defense organizations. They’re an independent agency that looks into claims of innocence to find, you know, evidence that hasn’t been uncovered and to verify claims of innocence. They got involved in 2010, following a letter from Leon Brown in 2009 asking them to look into his case. So, from 2010 up until basically Tuesday, they’ve had an active investigation going on in Leon Brown’s case, with the understanding that the evidence related to Leon’s case is identical to that for Henry McCollum. So that’s how they got involved. And they’ve conducted … an exhaustive investigation and have tested and retested many of the items of physical evidence that were found. They’ve conducted interviews. They’ve done a phenomenal job in this case.*
- Police and prosecutors aren’t meaningfully held accountable for wrongful convictions:
RUSSELL: The defending police force should, moreover, become the prosecuting police force where one class of crimes is concerned, namely crimes committed by the prosecuting police in the execution of their “duty.”
BONUS #6: It has everything to do with race:
More and more it appears that the police are here to “hold the line” between the social and economic classes, disadvantaging the lower classes who lack a “private fortune” to mount a competent defense for themselves. In a nation where class lines have been drawn and enforced along racial lines, established largely through pervasive institutional racism, means these mechanisms of power and justice come to bear on people of color in a spectacularly brutal and unjust fashion.
* I said “insufficient,” but I’ll allow that 31 years late is slightly better than never, amirite?