Time Magazine’s investigation and the rest of the story about wrongful convictions
The current issue of Time magazine contains a six-page (long by Time’s standards) investigation by Nathan Thornburgh about a rural Texas case that might have led to the execution of somebody who did not commit the murder of a liquor store owner.
The dead liquor store owner is Allen Hilzandager, murdered in 1989. The dead convicted murderer is Claude Jones, executed by the state of Texas in 2000.
The context of the Time investigation is that testable DNA evidence (a hair from the crime scene) might prove Jones’ innocence. The Innocence Project based in New York City and Texas Observer magazine are advocating the testing. The prosecutor in San Jacinto County is opposing the testing.
Lawyers, journalists (including me) and others affiliated with the five dozen or so innocence projects across the United States believe executions of defendants who had nothing to do with a specific crime have occurred. Prosecutors, judges and others involved in the criminal justice system believe no such faulty execution has occurred. Passionate individuals on each side of the debate are motivated primarily by their opposition to or support of the death penalty. (I am not motivated primarily by a stance on the death penalty.)
The Jones case is not the first to revolve around whether states have executed innocent individuals. Because state officials (usually a combination of the local prosecutor, attorney general and governor) have resisted posthumous testing of evidence), some of the disputed cases might never be resolved. In Virginia, a long disagreement about the execution of Roger Coleman eventually led to testing of DNA evidence. Although some experienced, wise innocence project advocates felt certain the testing would prove Coleman’s innocence, they were mistaken. Virginia had indeed executed the actual murderer.
For those reading the Time investigation, or reading about the Time investigation, I think it’s vital to emphasize these points, which are not emphasized by Thornburgh. (I am not criticizing Thornburgh, who like almost all journalists is captive to a maximum word count set by editors.)
*Prosecutors who resist responsible testing of all credible evidence in death penalty cases–and non-death penalty cases–are bending/breaking their professional oath to place justice over winning convictions. Those prosecutors can dress up the reasons for their opposition all they want, but the high-minded statements cannot alter the immorality of that opposition.
*Prosecutors who state the system works so well that wrongful conviction cases almost never occur either know better or are devoid of common sense. Yes, the system works well in many of the 2300-plus prosecutor jurisdictions across the United States. But in other jurisdictions, wrongful convictions occur over and over. To use percentages as an advertisement for the rightness of the system is akin to the airline industry (hypothetically) saying a fatal crash right of “only” one percent means all is well in the skies.
*In most jurisdictions, most cases do not yield testable DNA evidence. That means proving actual innocence is usually extremely time consuming and expensive. Most innocence projects have tiny staffs and inadequate budgets. I believe big-picture studies of wrongful convictions based on mistaken eyewitness testimony, lying jailhouse informants, false confessions by coerced or mentally ill defendants and other factors convicingly suggest an alarming statistic: that in some jurisdictions, as many as five percent of all inmates are innocent.