Lying is the number one cause of wrongful convictions. Lying to the police, lying to the prosecutor, lying on the stand during a trial. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, perjury and false accusation have been the real culprits behind unwarranted imprisonment. Now more than 2,000 inmates have been exonerated, including 101 accused individuals who had been sentenced to death.
And that right there is just one reason why I don’t support the death penalty. If it were not for the diligence of these truth-seekers, the 101 inmates on death row would’ve had their punishments carried out and there ain’t no fixing or coming back from that kind of finality. The chance that someone could die as punishment for a crime they didn’t commit is absolutely the biggest insult to the concept of justice.
It’s downright scary because someone could lob an accusation—against you, against me, against anyone in our families—and if so-called evidence lines up just so and investigations go awry, it can translate to spending years, even a lifetime in the slammer. Especially when you fold those age-old exacerbaters like race, poverty, and social marginalization into the mix. Heaven help you if you have the misfortune of being on the wrong side of all of those factors. You’re sure to face certain doom in the justice system if the chips are already stacked against you.
Behold, some stats:
• African-Americans make up 50 percent of the individuals in the National Registry of Exonerations database. Whites folks comprise 38 percent, Latinos total 11 percent, and Native Americans and Asians account for 2 percent. Men make up 93 percent of the exonerated defendants.
• The most common crime on the list is murder (48 percent), followed by sexual assault (35 percent). After that, the numbers are smaller (though no less damning in some cases, I’m sure): robberies (5 percent) and combined drug, white collar, and non-violent crimes (7 percent).
Many of these collected tales of wrongful conviction involved tainted evidence, shotty police work, and mistaken eyewitness identification. It’s just a sampling of the debacles that send innocent people to prison. Still, those issues are rarely acknowledged, let alone voluntarily acted upon. In an effort to save face and avoid messy public confessions—and potshots to law enforcement’s credibility—it’s not uncommon for new evidence to crop up and be scuttled back under a far-flung rock, even if it means the life of an innocent person hangs in the balance.
The masterminds behind the registry say cops are right most of the time, but most of the time is not all of the time. And it’s that margin of human error that wreaks havoc on the lives of falsely imprisoned folks. Thank heavens for this registry and DNA and forensic testing, that’s all I can say. I’m sure we’d all say it if we were on the wrong end of a crime accusation, as a matter of fact.
It's impossible to put a price tag on or make up for all of the time lost during a false imprisonment, not to mention the stress, harassment, abuse (the level depending on the inmate population and institution), psychological, emotional, and mental scarring, and the struggle of readjusting to life outside, including finding a job. But what kind of assistance or compensation should the government give to people who served time in prison for crimes they didn't commit?
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