INjustice in the legal system

In class the other day, a student made a presentation on his desire to become a lawyer in order to ensure greater justice in the legal system. Among other things, we talked about people convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a cover story over the weekend presenting their analysis of the lives of 137 men who are among the more than 200 individuals who have been imprisoned and then exonerated since 1989 by DNA evidence. The interactive feature on the Times’ web site especially puts a human face on the lives that were destroyed by this injustice. (They can probably relate to the Duke lacrosse players, but maybe not shed any tears for them since their more privileged backgrounds helped them establish their innocence prior to incarceration.)

Imagine facing a judge at your sentencing and hearing what Jeffrey Deskovic heard:“’Maybe you’re innocent,’ the judge conceded before sentencing him to 15 years to life. ‘But the jury has spoken.’”

Since he was exonerated, the Times story reports, Deskovic has struggled:

“Having spent nearly half his life locked up, accused of brutalizing a high school classmate he hardly knew, Mr. Deskovic was sent into the world last fall lacking some of life’s most fundamental skills and experiences.He had never lived alone, owned a car, scanned the classifieds in search of work. He had never voted, balanced a checkbook or learned to knot a tie.

He missed the senior prom, the funeral of the grandmother who helped raise him, and his best friend’s wedding.”

The Times identified their cases using the database kept by The Innocence Project, which I’ve mentioned before. Their website also does well to put a human face on the tragedy of this injustice.

Duke Lacrosse

Although I doubted their innocence at the outset, thank goodness that justice was done in the end in the infamous Duke lacrosse case. It’s hard to imagine the disruption experienced by the Duke players and coach (exiled from Duke to Bryant College — whatever that is). I couldn’t help but marvel at how unique the circumstances were that produced this case: a white District Attorney, needing to pander to the black population for an election victory, brings a flimsy case against white college students at a prestigious university on behalf of a black stripper.

I also couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to the players if they were poor minorities (or poor whites, for that matter) represented by overworked public defenders. They might have ended up like Darryl Hunt, who was wrongly imprisoned for 19.5 years when he was only 19 years old, or other innocent individuals like Calvin Johnson (15 years in jail), James Curtis Giles (24 years), Travis Hayes (10 years), et alia. (Coincidentally, the documentary “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” will premier on HBO at 8pm on April 26th.)