Thursday, April 02, 2009

LTG 04-02-09: Whoops, we shouldn't have jailed you!

From the Omaha CityWeekly, week of April 02, 2009

So, how much is a year of your life worth?

The Unicameral is debating legislation that would authorize payments to people who have been wrongly imprisoned by Nebraska courts. If the bill passes, Nebraska would join the Federal government and twenty-five other states to have a specific mechanism in place for people wrongly convicted.

The impetus for the bill was the “Beatrice Six,” a group of people who were convicted in 1985 for the rape and murder of an elderly woman. Through the Innocence Project, a group formed to use DNA evidence to prove people were wrongly convicted of crimes, the “Beatrice Six” were exonerated and declared by the Attorney General as “100 percent innocent.”

(As a quick aside, does anyone else struggle with hearing nicknames like “Beatrice Six” and not envisioning all of them in pinstripe zoot suits with fedoras and tommy guns racing around in Model T’s trying to avoid the revenue boys? Maybe I’m just a little too excited for the upcoming Johnny Depp flick about John Dillinger.)

Now, keep in mind, this is still Nebraska, so it’s not like the Unicameral would be just giving the money away. People who want to ask for compensation for wrongful imprisonment would have to go through the State Tort Claims Act, meaning they would have to file a claim with the State Claims Board. If that claim is denied, they would have to file an action in district court.

Additionally, the person making the claim will have to prove their innocence, to have received a pardon, and that they made no false statements that lead to convictions of other persons. They will also have to prove the amount of damage they suffered and are due compensation for, and will be limited to a total award of $500,000.

No word as to whether a claimant will also be required to solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 10 minutes to be eligible for an award, but watch this space for any updates.

If the bill passes, many of the “Beatrice Six” prisoners will have an additional complication. Some of them entered guilty pleas to reduced charges, and will have to prove that such pleas were coerced.

And that could prove challenging. Pleading to lesser charges provides a huge moral dilemma for people accused of a crime who are in fact innocent. Keep in mind that the “Beatrice Six” were originally charges with capital offenses, meaning they could face the death penalty if convicted.

That’s a lot riding on the decisions of twelve people. It is not at all an unreasonable position to accept a lesser plea to remove the possibility of a date with Ol’ Sparky. After all, the Innocence Project has demonstrated that innocent people are convicted of crimes at a disturbingly high rate – 234 people to date, according to their website.

So, from a practical standpoint, it’s not unusual for someone to enter a plea to a lesser charge even if they were innocent. If that plea then blocks their ability to claim compensation for wrongful imprisonment later on, the possibility for a huge injustice to be perpetrated still exists.

Now, I expect there will be some significant opposition to this bill. By compensating people for being wrongly imprisoned, the argument will go, it will make prosecutors more cautious in filing charges and will mean more criminals will go free.

Which ultimately brings this debate down to its’ philosophical core – is it worse to imprison an innocent person, or to free a guilty person?

In a free society, the answer to this question should be obvious. In a free society, we presume innocence and require the state to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before we can imprison someone. By definition, that means that some guilty people will go free to protect the freedom of the innocent.

Consider how historical thinkers have answered that philosophical question. Luminaries like William Blackstone, one of the fathers of English common law, and Benjamin Franklin believed it better for tens or hundreds of guilty people to escape punishment to ensure the freedom of one innocent person. Conversely, Otto von Bismark and Pol Pot thought it better to let innocent people suffer to ensure the punishment of the guilty. You decide on whose historical team you’d rather be playing.

The consideration of this bill, therefore, is a huge step forward for Nebraska. In an era where we’ve declared wars on crime, drugs, terror, and every other scourge, it’s very easy to lose track of the humanity of those behind bars. Many – hopefully most – people behind bars are there because of their own actions, and society is a safer place as a result.

But we can never forget that our criminal justice system is not perfect. Mistakes are made, and innocent people are sent to jail. In our zeal to be “tough on crime,” we must never forget the fallibility of the system and the innocent people that get caught up in it.

We’ve just come through a Presidential administration that thought it was perfectly acceptable to throw people in jail for years without any charges, access to lawyers, or anything else that a free society demands. As a nation, we are finally beginning to realize how wrong that is, and taking steps to change it.

Apparently that spirit is catching. By providing compensation for people wrongly imprisoned, we as a state would be acknowledging the damage wrongfully locking someone in a small concrete box does. And if it makes prosecutors more cautious in charges they file – meaning we’re even more sure that innocent people aren’t being sent to jail – then I’d call that mission accomplished.

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