How would you like to spend Christmas season in prison? Millions of Americans do. Many are imprisoned for victimless crimes, such as marijuana possession. Others are totally innocent.
Experts estimate that there are several hundred thousand innocent Americans in prison. Among these many is Christophe Yves Gaynor. In my considered opinion, Mr. Gaynor was framed by a corrupt Arlington, Virginia, prosecutor and railroaded by a corrupt Arlington, Virginia, judge.
Mr. Gaynor was a skateboard coach in Virginia who took his team to a New York competition. One of the team members attempted to purchase drugs. To restrain him, Mr. Gaynor threatened to tell his parents. The boy struck first by accusing Mr. Gaynor of molesting him. The entire team knew the charge to be false, but the improprieties of the trial defeated justice. The governor of Virginia should remove the stain of injustice and pardon Mr. Gaynor.
William R. Strong, Jr., is another victim of our injustice system. DNA evidence exists that Mr. Strong says would clear him, but the state of Virginia somehow cannot get around to giving him the benefit of the evidence. On February 8, 2002, Sheriff C.W. Phelps of the County of Isle of Wight informed state authorities, including the Commonwealth Attorney, that he had found the misfiled perk kit containing DNA evidence. Almost two years later Mr. Strong still hasn’t been tested to see if his DNA matches the evidence.
Mr. Strong was an early victim of Virginia’s wife rape law. He says his unfaithful wife was into rough sex with her boyfriend and took advantage of the new law to get him, her husband, out of the way. The semen in the perk kit, Mr. Strong says, is the boyfriend’s, not his.
Mr. Strong was convicted prior to the advent of DNA testing. A simple test can establish the truth. Does Virginia care?
Conservatives have hardened their hearts against the wrongfully convicted. Mistakes happen, they admit, but they believe most mistakes result from liberal judges letting the guilty go free.
Conservatives are right that the guilty often go free, but the reason is that the innocent are convicted in their place. Justice is no longer a concern of the justice system. Careers depend on conviction rates. It is easier for police and prosecutors to get convictions by piling charges on a convenient suspect until they coerce a plea than to solve a case and find the truth.
Mary Sue Terry, former attorney general of the Commonwealth of Virginia, has this to say: "Our concern has turned from seeking truth to seeking convictions, and our post-conviction efforts are focused on denying any further review."
Judges have written to me about the breakdown of our justice system. They confirm that injustice is rife.
With the advent of DNA evidence, every week we learn of new cases of wrongful conviction. People on death row and people who have spent most of their lives in prison are being released as DNA evidence proves them to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Each case of wrongful conviction is a scandal, but the scandals have little impact on the public and none whatsoever on the conviction mill that continues its destruction of innocent lives.
Forensic evidence, once thought to be conclusive, has turned out to be unreliable and often fraudulent. From time to time we see news reports of forensic experts whose work has fallen under suspicion: Pamela Fish in Illinois, Fred Zain in West Virginia. Joyce Gilchrist in Oklahoma City. Even the FBI’s vaunted crime lab turned out to be unreliable.
Many convictions are obtained by prosecutors who pay "snitches" with money, dropped charges, or reduced sentences to produce testimony that can be used to convict other defendants. Most often, the testimony is false, but the prosecutor has his "evidence."
The advent of men-hating feminist and lesbian prosecutors allows the criminal justice system to be used to act out gender grudges.
Privatized prisons require convictions to keep the profit rate up.
Americans are extremely nave and uniformed about the criminal justice system. Until they, a friend or relative becomes personally ensnared in the system, Americans believe that police and prosecutors would never convict an innocent person. Once they experience the system, they are terrified by the system’s indifference to whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. Conviction of the defendant is the system’s sole concern.
Ever widening arrest powers are bringing a reality check to more and more Americans. Just before Christmas the US Supreme Court ruled that a police officer who discovers contraband in a car can arrest every occupant if no one admits to ownership of the illicit item. Warn your teenagers never to get into a car with acquaintances who might have alcohol, drugs, or weapons. And be careful whose car you get into yourself.
Yes, there still are some honest police, prosecutors and judges. But the pressures they are under to match the conviction rates of the corrupt and to clear court dockets will eventually leave our justice system entirely in the hands of a heartless breed that never suffers the pangs of a bad conscience.
Dr. Roberts [send him mail] is John M. Olin Fellow at the Institute for Political Economy, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.