Why Are We Keeping Innocent People in Prison?

We all have egos. They are fragile. They are easily wounded. But that in combination with immense power is a dangerous thing.

There have been numerous stories, especially with the advent of innocence commissions, about innocent people serving prison sentences being exonerated, whether it be by DNA evidence, false confessions, flawed eyewitness testimony or any other number of reasons. Amazingly, even in the face of overwhelming evidence proving the innocence of those previously convicted, many Attorney’s General and District Attorney’s in Raleigh and throughout the country are fighting to keep those innocent individuals incarcerated, just to save face.

The National Registry of Exonerations, which provides information about every known exoneration in the US since 1989, currently lists 1672 exonerations. An exoneration occurs when a person who has been convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence. This does not include cases where a conviction has been overturned due to police corruption scandals, planting of evidence, or other issues. A 2012 estimate by the NRE put that number at 1100. A study by Ohio State University suggests that 10,000 people in the United States may be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes each year.

One would think that when overwhelming evidence points to someone’s innocence that even a prosecutor, who is charged with administering justice and seeking out the truth, would be fighting, or at least stepping aside to allow justice to be served. But there are far too many examples indicating otherwise. A recent article in the Washington Post highlights two cases where an Attorney General in Mississippi and a State’s Attorney in Illinois have valiantly fought against an innocent person’s release from prison. Another example was written about in a NY case. I could spend days researching examples of this, but I have a day job actually defending people charged with these crimes.

Why are prosecutors so adamantly opposed to convictions being overturned? It goes back to ego and politics. A prosecutor takes a wrongful conviction personally, as they should to a certain extent. So rather than admit that a mistake was made and facilitate the process of correcting the injustice, it seems to them better to deny the error altogether. As for the politics, most top prosecutors that are either elected or serve at the pleasure of someone who is elected run on a tough on crime platform. In their misguided thought process, these people think that a conviction counts, even if it is a wrongful conviction. If someone is exonerated or the conviction overturned, that comes off the number of convictions. It’s about the facade and the data, not about justice.

And what happens when prosecutors abuse their authority? Usually nothing. From a ProPublica story: “An analysis of more than a decade’s worth of state and federal court rulings found more than two dozen instances in which judges explicitly concluded that city prosecutors had committed harmful misconduct. In each instance, these abuses were sufficient to prompt courts to throw out convictions.

Yet the same appellate courts did not routinely refer prosecutors for investigation by the state disciplinary committees charged with policing lawyers. Disciplinary committees, an arm of the appellate courts, almost never took serious action against prosecutors. None of the prosecutors who oversaw cases reversed based on misconduct were disbarred, suspended, or censured except for Stuart.”

Every day, I see prosecutors zealously prosecuting defendants and angling for the maximum possible punishment because it’s about the win. It’s not about the evidence. It’s not about the truth. It’s not about justice. I’d like to be able to have a reasoned discourse with a prosecuting attorney about what my client may truly be culpable of (it may be nothing at all) and what the appropriate course of action might be. Doing so would result in few convictions of innocent people (because people wouldn’t take pleas out of fear of the tremendous risks in going to trial), less crowding of the prison system, and an attempt at restorative and rehabilitative justice. The resulting numbers should be far more palatable and the life stories far more compelling.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.