Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Innocence Lost: The Power of Actual Journalism

Right now, here in Florence, we have a hotly contested race for the 12th Circuit Solicitor's office. Lost in all the talk about cases loads, conviction rates and law enforcement support, is the fact that the field of criminal justice is just like any other field.

We are lucky to have some outstanding investigators and law enforcement officers here in the 12th. But just like any workplace, not every job gets done correctly.

People can take shortcuts and they can make mistakes. For most folks, seeing problems like that on the job just means they have to unfairly pick up the slack or that undeserving people sometimes are rewarded for the hard work of others. In the criminal justice system, that kind of stuff can result in people losing their liberty or possibly their lives.

Texas Monthly has an outstanding article up by Pamela Colloff, a 14,000 word behemoth that is rare in today's short blurb world. How outstanding was it? It's credited with influencing the State of Texas to drop their attempts to retry Anthony Graves and finally free him after 18 years in prison.

We find this article important to show how damaging the belief of true guilt can be to those in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors, jailers, Texas rangers and Deputy Sheriffs all did things that sent an innocent man to prison and had him in line to die. Maybe we're naive, but we like to assume that those who don the cloak of public service do so with honorable intentions. But...as was once asked, Brutus and Cassius...are they not too honorable men?

In ordering a new trial for Graves, the Fifth District Federal Court of Appeals specifically took issue with the prosecutor of the case, Burleson Co. DA Charles Sebesta.

"The court reserved particular criticism for Sebesta for having prompted two witnesses to say on the stand that Carter had never wavered, other than in his grand jury testimony, in identifying Graves as the killer. (Sebesta had done this not only with Carter but with Ranger Coffman as well.) Wrote Davis, “Perhaps even more egregious than District Attorney Sebesta’s failure to disclose Carter’s most recent statement is his deliberate trial tactic of eliciting testimony from Carter and the chief investigating officer, Ranger Coffman, that the D.A. knew was false.”

Personally, Sebesta's proclamations of no wrongdoing would be a little more believable, if he didn't also pull that BS tactic of threatening to charge one of Graves' witnesses as a co-defendant right before she took the stand. (An allegation Sebesta admits in hindsight he does not believe).

Now, there are no doubt defense attorneys who have crossed over the line in representing their defendants, a practice we find as distasteful and wrong as when anyone else does it. But the law recognizes the enormous power a prosecutor has and places on them the special, and difficult burden, of seeking justice. That's a duty much higher than that which a defense attorney is tasked with, which is to zealously advocate on behalf of their clients.

We simply want to remind people that being a prosecutor is much more than conviction rates and tough talk. It's our hope that whomever is serving as our solicitor in the 12th Circuit after next Tuesday embraces that duty. If they do, we will hopefully never have to hear one of our residents of the 12th echoing the heartbreaking remarks of Graves below.

“I’ve missed so much,” Graves said. “My children are all grown. I have grandkids I’ve never touched.” His voice broke. “I’ve been alive for the past eighteen years, but I haven’t lived,” he said.

He had already told me that he was not a particularly religious person, so I asked what sustained him.

“Knowing I’m innocent,” he replied. “I’m not just going to lay down my life for something I didn’t do.”

Eventually I got to the question I had been wanting to ask. I was curious how he remembered the world that he had left behind when he was 26 years old. “If you ever get out of here—” I began.

“When I get out,” he interrupted. “When.”

“When you get out, what do you want to do first?” I ventured.

“Hug my mother and my children,” he said. “Take a bath. Eat some ribs off the barbecue pit, or a hamburger with real lettuce and tomatoes and onions.” He closed his eyes for a moment, as if savoring a memory he had secreted away. “Take my shoes off and touch the grass,” he said. “Or just open a door. Open a door so I can walk outside."
Hattip Savitz

1 comment:

Daniel said...

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