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Exoneration

October 18, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I ended up in a conversation with a relatively high-up at the Department of Corrections about the Center on Actual Innocence.  It’s a little-bit-of-everything non-profit that helps individuals who have been wrongly convicted gain freedom and advocates for the kind of changes within the criminal justice system that would make those situations increasingly rare.  The Center has gotten some attention lately because of the exoneration of Alan Gell; his case reminded folks (again) that there is a need for this type of work.

The Gell case unnerves me.  Prosecutors in the case withheld statements  from 17 witnesses who said they had seen the victim alive after the time that Gell could have killed him.  After his lawyers discovered the eyewitness accounts that proved Gell could not have committed the murder and asked a judge to throw out his conviction, the Attorney General’s office argued that Gell should still be executed.  The judge vacated Gell’s conviction and the Attorney General decided to try Gell again.  What?

Policy Watch gets it just about right:

The criminal justice system is not perfect. No system administered by humans can ever be. But we have a right to expect that folks who work for the department named Justice seek it tirelessly, even when it means admitting they are wrong.

So back to my conversation with a DOC employee.  She said something that really stuck with me, which I think is an interesting answer to why Justice Department folks aren’t always willing to admit that they were wrong.  She said that it’s quite possible for every single person within the criminal justice system connected to a given conviction to do their job perfectly.  By the book.  No short-cuts, no mistakes.

And still convict the wrong person.

Hopefully it isn’t very likely.  But its entirely possible.

And then she asked me this, “If the system, not the person, is broken; if the person was just doing their job the way they were supposed to, why should they apologize of the system arrives at the wrong conclusion?”

That certainly wasn’t the case with Gell.  There is plenty of real blame to level at real people.  But it its a worrying question for the cases in which it might be true.

I know I’m asking for push-back, but I believe that systems are made up of people with agency.  And participation in a system carries potential culpability.  I appreciate protecting folks by differentiating between mistakes and jobs correctly done that led to incorrect outcomes.

But it doesn’t mean that folks just get to shrug and point to a system they’ve conveniently personified.

Jonas

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