Proving someone innocent of a crime through DNA or other means after a conviction shows flaws in our justice system.
Many remain reluctant to face those flaws and correct them because they'd rather write off those who are wrongfully convicted as "collateral damage" in the war for law and order, said a panel of legal experts during a symposium at the University of Utah on wrongful convictions.
The two-day symposium, held Thursday and Friday at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, focused on helping those who have been wrongfully convicted through legislation and a shift in attitudes among courts and prosecutors on the issue of convicting the innocent.
"Sometimes the system does not correct the errors in the capital system," said Susan Bandes, law professor at DePaul University College of Law. Bandes said that after a conviction, it's difficult to get the public to be moved or care about injustices or to feel empathy for "flawed individuals" because they don't conform to the "good guys and bad guys" model of justice.
Panelists argued that people must see beyond those who may have a criminal past but who were accused of murders they didn't commit.
Bandes argued that often in stories about someone wrongfully accused, prosecutorial misconduct is blamed on isolated individuals or "rogues" as part of the government's desire to "force blame downward" rather than draw attention to more systemic problems. She cited the prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse rape case as an example.
"Everybody makes mistakes," said George C. Thomas III, professor of law at Rutgers University, but "sometimes prosecutors lose sight of innocence."
Driven by a "fierce loyalty to a version of events" or simply by the pride of getting a strong conviction record, Thomas said, prosecutors can sometimes push for a plea bargain to a crime they know a defendant didn't commit.
In a world where so few criminal cases go to trial but are rather pressured into plea deal negotiations, the issue is of concern, said Ronald Wright Jr., executive associate dean for academic affairs at Wake Forest University.
Wright said there are some efforts among prosecutors to revive a sense of justice for those truly innocent of crimes. One district attorney in California offers cash rewards to employees who come forward with evidence proving someone is innocent.
U. law professor and symposium coordinator Daniel Medwed said DNA testing has transformed America's criminal law system. Since 1989, more than 200 people have been exonerated due to DNA evidence. However, Medwed said there remains an attitude with some that people who are wrongfully convicted are simply "the cost of doing business" in the justice system.
The symposium also explored a bill to be introduced before the Utah Legislature that would provide financial assistance to prison inmates who have been fully exonerated so they can rebuild their lives.
The bill would require that a state judge declare an inmate innocent. That person would then qualify to receive an annual wage for a single Utah wage earner for each year of imprisonment for up to 15 years. The current average is between $34,000 and $35,000 a year.The bill follows a trend among other states that have passed such laws to help those who have suffered a miscarriage of justice. Legal experts in Utah say such cases of exoneration are very rare in Utah's justice system.