Friday, January 25, 2008

And Justice for All ?

I have just finished reading John Grisham's book The Innocent Man. This true story raises troubling questions about the justice system in the United States. A similar story in Canada raises the same kind of questions about whether the current system actually serves to search for the truth in certain criminal cases.

In his book Grisham tells the story of the murder and rape of a young woman in a small town. He describes the police investigation and how that investigation came to focus on one man, Ron Williamson. Grisham also describes how Williamson's life had devolved from a promising and popular young athlete to someone who everyone in town knew as a "troublemaker." Williamson's decline seems to have been connected to his mental health issues. The police focused on Williamson as a suspect in the murder mainly because he was known as a troublemaker. They disregarded information that might point to another person as a more likely suspect and they used jailhouse informants to build a circumstantial case against Williamson. Not surprisingly Williamson soon found himself on death row where his mental health deteriorated even further. Grisham next describes the long process of appeals and hearings finally leading to Williamson's exoneration. The book does not do a lot of "preaching" about the lessons to be drawn from the story but the story is disturbing in many ways. Quite recently the media have reported on another case in the USA where a young man who the investigators found "weird" in some way was exonerated nine years after being found guilty of the murder of a woman near his home.

Such disturbing stories do not just happen in the USA. On October 3, 1984 (about two years after the murder of Debbie Carter in the previous paragraph) a young girl was kidnapped and murdered in Queensville, Ontario. Almost immediately the attention of the police focused on Guy Paul Morin, a neighbor. Again, police disregarded evidence that pointed to Morin's innocence and built a circumstantial case relying heavily on the evidence of jailhouse informants and the opinion of detectives that Morin's responses during an initial interview were indicative of an awareness of guilt. Finally, DNA testing not available at the time of the initial investigation, proved that Morin was not the monster that police and prosecutors had proclaimed him to be. Exoneration followed and Morin received a cash settlement and an apology for all his troubles. Interestingly Morin also had mental health issues. A police detective chillingly observed at one point that Morin fit "the profile" of the killer better than any other possible suspect.

What the two stories have in common is that the suspect in each case was "different" in some way (in both cases mental health issues were involved). Detectives in each case made a judgement early on that this was the guilty party and built their cases to fit that preconceived idea by disregarding facts that did not point to the guilt of the accused and emphasizing unreliable facts (the jailhouse testimony) that serve their purpose. What this seems to point to is that the prosecution at some point stopped looking for the truth (which is where justice comes from, I think) and instead substituted a search for convictions and victory. I know that the theory is probably that truth comes from the conflict in the courtroom between prosecution and defense; but it seems to me that a police detective or a prosecutor has to have some concern for truth. The measure of their success should not be simply in their rate of convictions.

Another point that is troubling here is the near infallibility accorded to forensic "experts" in these trials. We have television shows like CSI that describe in near mythological terms the ability of forensic experts to solve a complex case. Similarly the show Criminal Minds describes the fantastic ability of behavioral scientists to create criminal profiles to solve other complex cases. However, in both the Williamson case and the Morin case the "expert" evidence supplied was weak and was made to look more important than it actually was. The expert evidence, which should have aided the search for truth instead helped to obtain false convictions.

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