Justice System

When people place themselves in positions of authority (lawmakers, police, prosecutors, attorneys, judges) they had better make sure that they uphold the laws that they seek to represent. We know that there are many honest people involved in the “system”, but how can the public be expected to fully trust it when they read stories like these that follow?

ITEM: The Wrong Men on Death Row – A Summary of a U.S. News & World Reports by Joseph P. Shapiro

The American Bar Association has called for a moratorium of the death penalty since a number of people who were convicted of crimes, imprisoned and placed on death row, have since been discovered to be innocent. The reasons cited for the Bar’s action were “bad lawyering and mistaken convictions”. In one case, a man was convicted even though police turned up no physical evidence at the scene; the police used trickery to gain a confession (the courts often allow this technique as a means to crack savvy criminals, but woe to the simpler folk who believe that police never lie); the judge at the trial showed blatant disdain for the defendant (objective observer?); use of a jail inmate who perjured himself.

In another case, two men spent 10 years on death row. Shortly after their convictions, another man confessed to the crime. Even so, prosecutors insisted they had the right men. When DNA evidence proved the prosecutors wrong, they ignored that too. During one of the men’s third trial, a police officer finally admitted that he had lied in previous testimony. In January, seven police officers and prosecutors go on trial charged with conspiracy to conceal and fabricate evidence against the two men.

DNA profiling has been the single most important saving grace to wrongfully convicted men and the one thing that has done more to expose the fallibility of the legal system. In the last decade, 56 innocent people have been released because of DNA testing. Ten of those released were from death row. But in 70-percent of the cases pursued by attorney Barry Scheck’s “Innocence Project”, police had already discarded semen, hair or other evidence needed for testing.

Conclusions: The number one reason people are falsely convicted is poor legal representation. Many states cap fees for court-appointed attorneys, which means it’s harder for poorer people to get competent legal aid. It’s also been harder for inmates to find attorneys to handle appeals since Congress in 1996 stopped funding legal aid centers in 20 states. Perjured testimony from jailhouse snitches, faulty eyewitness accounts and false confessions (those secured by police through inappropriate means) are the other major factors in wrongful convictions. A conference at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago was expected to hear calls for the death penalty moratorium until safeguards are in place: increased legal aid, certification of capital-trial attorneys, limits on use of jail-house snitches, access to post-conviction DNA testing, the recording of all police interrogations, accreditation of forensic experts.

ITEM: Federal Prosecutors Routinely Break Law, Paper Finds – Associated Press

PITTSBURGH – Federal agents and prosecutors around the country have repeatedly broken the law over the past decade in pursuit of convictions, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said it found during a two-year investigation.

The newspaper, in a 10-part series that begins today (Nov. 22, 1998), said it uncovered examples of prosecutors lying, hiding evidence, distorting the facts, engaging in cover-ups, paying for perjury and setting up innocent people to win indictments, guilty pleas and convictions.

Federal officials rarely were punished for their misconduct, despite the fact that they caused some victims to lose their jobs, assets and even families, the newspaper said. It also reported that some victims went to prison because prosecutors withheld favorable evidence or allowed fabricated testimony, while some criminals walked free as a reward for conspiring with the government.

“It’s a result-oriented process today, fairness be damned. The philosophy of the past 10-15 years is that whatever works is what’s right”, said Robert Merkle, who served as a U.S. attorney in Florida from 1982 to 1988 and is now a defense lawyer in Tampa.

The newspaper said the problems have worsened as Congress has eliminated many of the checks and balances designed to prevent the abuse of power. No matter what offense a federal prosecutor may commit in pursuing an investigation, a criminal defendant is practically powerless to sue for damages.

ITEM: More and More Police Officers are Wearing Badges of Dishonor – LA Times/Nov. 22, 1998/ by Jack Nelson

BUTNER, N.C. – In six years on the Savannah, GA., police force, Officer Ralph Riley made 600 drug related arrests. A tough, aggressive copy who boot-strapped his way out of public housing to earn a degree in criminal justice from Savannah State College, Riley built a reputation for skillfully handling dangerous undercover assignments. He dreamed of joining the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and maybe becoming a lawyer.

Today, Riley is serving nine years in the federal penitentiary here – one of 11 Savannah-area officers arrested in an FBI sting in September 1997 on charges of protecting illegal drug shipments.

The story of how one Georgia policeman went from role model to convicted felon casts a revealing light on an alarming national problem: the rapidly rising number of police officers convicted of serious crimes – most of them involving drugs and directly related to their law enforcement duties.

The number of federal, state and local officials serving time in federal prison, mostly for drug-related offenses, has multiplied five times in four years to nearly 550 this year, according to government data.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, 44 police and other law enforcement officers in the Cleveland area pleaded guilty to drug charges growing out of an FBI sting.

“It’s particularly worrisome to see an increase in cases where you have criminals masquerading as police officers,” said Mark Codd, chief of the FBI’s public corruption unit. “The ultimate corruption of the system is to have police become active participants in the trafficking of drugs.”

While police corruption has long plagued the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, it is now spreading to the suburbs and medium-sized cities. For example:

— In Mount Vernon, N.Y., the chief of detectives and a second highly celebrated detective were arrested and accused of seizing illegal gambling proceeds for their own use and taking payoffs for allowing gambling and drug operations to function.

— Three former police officers in Palisades Park, N.J., will be sentenced this month on convictions stemming from entering and burglarizing homes whose security alarms had gone off.

— The sheriff, five deputies and the justice of the peace in Starr County, Texas, pleaded guilty in March to taking bribes in return for setting low bonds for people who had been arrested.

But Riley’s case is particularly revealing because he is one of the star performers in a program developed by the FBI to combat police-related crime. He sat for a two-hour videotaped interview for use in instructing other police officers, particularly those with little experience, to avoid the temptations and corrupting influence of illegal drugs.

“Respect your oath,” Riley said during the interview, choking with tears. “If you break it, you will suffer severe consequences. I know from real-life experience.”

ITEM: Ohio Lawmaker Convicted in Grocer Extortion Case – Associated Press

Here’s an example of one of our “LawMAKERS” BREAKING the Law!
Democratic state Sen. Jeffrey Johnson has been convicted of demanding money from grocers in exchange for his help in getting licenses to sell liquor and lottery tickets.

Johnson, 39, was convicted Friday (Nov. 20, 1998) of three counts of violating the Federal Hobbs Act, which prohibits public officials from using their office to extort money. He faces up to 20 years in prison