Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Improving American Justice

Yesterday I blogged about the case of Troy Anthony Davis, not only here, but on other forums as well. Fortunately the U. S. Supreme Court in emergency session yesterday gave Davis a reprieve, at least until next Monday when they are scheduled to decide whether they take Davis' final appeal, and if they do, at least until it is resolved.

One of my posts yesterday, at PoliWatch, drew the response - and I paraphrase:
With all of the crises we face at this time, who really cares about justice for one man? You have lost your sense of proportion.
Here is my reply:

Thank you for daring to ask the salient question! And I do mean that sincerely. Why indeed should I focus on the case of one man? That question is in fact in the back of my head when I write these articles. With injustice rampant around the globe, wars ravaging hundreds of thousands, millions dying from hunger, fundamental rights denied those who are not in power, and a whole host of issues here in the United States that impact huge swaths of our population, and indeed nearly every one of us ultimately - What does it matter?

Why Troy Anthony Davis?

I am pleased to answer that question.

We tout our system of justice as exemplary and fair and deliberative. "Innocent until proven guilty"; "everyone gets their day in court"; "the blind eye of justice"; "justice will be served"; American justice should be among the best in the world. Now, of course there will be hiccoughs - instances where local corruption perverts the proper delivery of justice.

If the case of Troy Anthony Davis were only that - a rare and local instance, where perhaps overzealous prosecutors coerced witness testimony - then you would be right to suggest that my focusing on it would be a disservice to more important topics for discussion.

I don't believe it is a hiccough.

For me, Davis' case is symptomatic of a number of fundamental problems with criminal justice in the United States. Yes it is extraordinary in bringing together many of these issues in one case, but that is what makes it noteworthy.

Now let me quickly add here that there is also a lot that is right about our system of justice. There are many extraordinarily talented police officers and detectives who follow the book and get good results, and many fine and talented prosecutors and judges who combine knowledge of the law with an earnest desire to serve justice who are a credit to our system.

But I believe there are some systemic issues and prevailing mistaken attitudes which are poisoning our system, and this case highlights a number of them.

Capital Punishment
The most obvious for most readers is the very presence of capital punishment. For me it is not the most important issue here - but it is clearly the one which speaks loudest to the most.

When there is a chance (and there is always a debate in quantifying that) that the convicted person facing extermination might be innocent, would we not be better off simply taking the death penalty off the list of possible punishments, as have most of the worlds nations?

Pressure to Gain Convictions
Next there is a pervasive attitude which prioritizes conviction over justice. Whether it is haste and impatience, or an ego driven desire to run up the number of convictions one can claim, there is little denying that many in law enforcement and prosecution succumb to the pressure to solve every case, and are too willing to overlook contravailing evidence which might suggest that their first suspicion was wrong. Now some of that is just human nature, which is bound to show up in any system of justice. But I contend that a renewed emphasis on the deliberative intent of our justice system, and a reduction in incentive to just find somebody to charge and convict, could go a long way toward reducing the haste which often results in wrongful convictions.

This is the area where I see the issue as being far broader than just the case of Troy Anthony Davis. In fact the capital punishment aspect of his case unfortunately obscures a much broader issue. How many innocent people (regardless of whether Davis is innocent or not), are suffering the grave and extraordinary punishment of spending years or the rest of their lives behind bars, simply because some cop, or prosecutor, or judge, or jury, or combination thereof, was too impatient to come to a conclusion which resolved the case? How much have we as a society lost by not having these people be productive members of society rather than a drain on our resources?

This is not just the fault of law enforcement and the courts. We really are all to blame for bringing this pressure on the system to come up with convictions, no matter whether they are correct.

Resistance to Correct Miscarriages of Justice
It has always been one of my pet peeves, that once convicted, justice usually becomes anything but swift when newly uncovered contravailing evidence suggests that we might have locked up the wrong person. Troy Davis' case highlights this concern strongly. It is plain to me that there was sufficient contravailing evidence early in this case to suggest that a new trial should have been granted at any of numerous points along the way. When such evidence is strong enough, I believe that is cause for the immediate release of the prisoner. We now have technology such as electronic ankle bracelets which could serve as a precaution against the suspect skipping town before their new trial. If Davis gets a
new trial, and his conviction is overturned, then assuming that he is innocent, he still would have suffered a very grave injustice. Based on the percentage of cases which have been overturned with exonerating DNA evidence as a result of the Innocence Project, we have every reason to suspect that there are a large number of prisoners who are wrongly incarcerated in these United States.

Racism / Classism / Influence
Finally it is never wrong to point out that we must always struggle to keep justice blind, and avoid the influence of race, class, and position in both who law enforcement suspects, and how we administer justice, and how we sentence the convicted. It is impossible to eliminate influence, no matter how perfect a system of justice might be. But eliminating such influence should be the beacon for which we aim, and evidence as shown by the statistics of who is incarcerated, and who isn't, strongly indicates that we fall far short of the mark.

In Conclusion
Individual stories make for compelling cases which individual readers can comprehend. I find the case of Troy Anthony Davis to be compelling. No doubt that is partly because I am a native Georgian, and also because I have heard the compelling testimony of his sister broadcast on my community radio station here in the Seattle area. I am pleased that the U. S. Supreme Court has given him a reprieve from his sentence, at least until next Monday when they decide whether or not to hear his last appeal, and if they do until they resolve the case.

The individual story allows the reader to connect at a more personal level with issues which we all should be concerned with. The media often gives undue attention to certain cases because of their celebrity or sensationalism, whether that be O. J. Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey, or Paris Hilton. Those cases often distract us from more important issues.

I contend that in contrast to those, the case of Troy Anthony Davis has the potential to bring our attention to issues worth facing. If we care about our system of justice, then we all should care.

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