Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Undoing Wrongful Convictions: Texas Attempts to Make Things Right

For years, I have harbored a silent, but firm, dislike for Texas-style justice. I do not know anyone personally who has been convicted of a crime and sent to prison in Texas, but over the years I have read two different kinds of news reports about the Texas justice system. One kind tells about the enthusiastic and dedicated prosecution and conviction of murderers and other heinous criminals. The underlying theme of these reports is "you do something wrong in Texas, and we will hunt you down and make you pay." The second kind of report tells about someone who gets released from prison after serving years — sometimes decades — for a crime he didn't commit. The underlying theme of these articles is "Texas is too quick to convict, and their prosecutors will do anything to get a conviction." You can interpret the word "anything" as broadly as you wish.

Usually a person's wrongful conviction is overturned because of new DNA evidence. Sometimes it's overturned because the real culprit speaks up. It used to be that the Texas justice system stubbornly refused to give up these wrongly convicted people, even when their innocence was beyond dispute. In one sad case, they executed Cameron Todd Willingham, a man wrongly convicted of arson and murder, long after his innocence was established and while his defenders were still hacking through the red tape to save him.

So, in my mind, Texas has earned, and deserves, its reputation as a "hang 'em high, and justice be damned" state. Every time an innocent man is released, I cheer deep inside and hurl silent curses in the general direction of the Lone Star State.

But my opinion of Texas-style justice has been softened. Sweetened, even. Today, a 58-year-old man, Randolph Arledge, is being set free after serving 30 years of a 99-year sentence for a crime he didn't commit. Arledge became the 118th person in the Texas legal system to have his conviction overturned. When Arledge went to prison, his children were 4 and 7 years old. They believed in his innocence and kept the faith all these years, and they were with him when he was released. Arledge had been convicted because two eyewitnesses had lied. He was released based on DNA studies of critical evidence saved for this many years.

Here comes the really cool part.

Texas cannot restore the 30 years they stole from his life. They cannot restore the 30 years they stole from his children's lives. However, in recent years the state of Texas has passed several laws aimed at: (1) preventing wrongful convictions; (2) making it easier for inmates convicted of a crime to have access to new DNA testing; and (3) paying restitution to those who have been wrongly convicted and then released.

You can't really put a cash value on a wrongful conviction, or on the 30 years the state stole from Arledge and his family. But you can try. And the state of Texas has tried. According to one article, the state "has the nation's most generous law for ex-inmates who have proven their innocence, providing a lump-sum payment of $80,000 for each year someone wrongly spent behind bars, as well as an annuity and other benefits."

Money talks. This is the way Texas says "I'm sorry." While I'm still inclined to lump Texas for their overeager prosecutors and their hanging judges, I am equally inclined to applaud Texas for this truly generous attempt to put things right.


By the way, much, if not all, of the credit for Arledge's release goes to the hard-working people at the Innocence Project. This posting is about Texas, not about the Innocence Project, but I invite you to visit their website and see what they're about. Even Republicans will find it enlightening.

Other entities around the country working on the problem of wrongful convictions include the Michigan Innocence Clinic


The great English jurist Sir William Blackstone said in 1765: "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." In 1785, Benjamin Franklin upped the ante, writing: "It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer." In modern times, Ben's words have been misquoted and misattributed, but the principle remains the same, and forms the basis for many of the clauses in the Bill of Rights. (Source: "Blackstone's Formulation," Wikipedia.)

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