December 8, 2013 in Opinion

Smart Bombs: Justice denied, innocence lost

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The news that the Idaho Innocence Project has lost federal funding represents an injustice. The government will spend bundles of money to conduct prosecutions and lock people up, but if they’re wrongfully convicted, it often takes volunteers to set them free.

The Idaho Innocence Project was awarded a total of $450,000 via two U.S. Justice Department grants in 2009 and 2011. But 38 groups vied for funding this year, and the Idaho project was not among the eight who were chosen, so it may not be able to take on new cases. That’s bad news for the wrongfully convicted, and good news for the actual culprits.

The Innocence Project began in New York in 1992, and it has had enormous success freeing the innocent from prison using DNA evidence. CNN is airing a documentary tonight on the case of Michael Morton, a Texas man who spent 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife before being exonerated. As CNN reports, this is not an isolated case. There have been 311 post-conviction DNA exonerations, 18 involved death sentences. On average, the exonerated have spent 13.5 years in prison, with the longest stretch being 35 years. In nearly half the cases, the real perpetrator has been identified. So, it’s actually the Innocence/Guilty Project, and everyone should rally behind this work.

So how does this happen? Bad police work, a heavy reliance on confessions and eyewitnesses, overzealous prosecutors and an unwillingness to admit errors. In 29 of the exonerations, police obtained false confessions; some were coerced.

I was working at a newspaper in Phoenix when a dumbfounded community learned how that works.

In 1991, nine people were executed at a Buddhist temple west of Phoenix, creating an international controversy. A massive law enforcement task force was assembled, but a month later it had no suspects. Then a mental hospital patient in Tucson picked up the phone and dropped a bombshell: some friends and relatives were the assassins, he said. Soon five suspects were rounded up and interrogated relentlessly over three days. Four confessed and the holdout was released. The Tucson Four soon recanted, but they remained locked up, despite the lack of physical evidence.

Unbeknownst to law enforcement, it had already picked up the murder weapon during an unrelated incident. More than a month later it was tested, and the two real culprits were identified. One of the killers had been involved in another murder that, incredibly, had been pinned on a mentally disabled man who was also the victim of a coerced confession.

In the end, the Tucson Four won a $2.8 million settlement, the other man got $1.1 million, and faith in law enforcement was immeasurably shattered.

Badge of dishonor. Spokane isn’t the only place that needs better law enforcement oversight.

Across the state, Clark County is taking out a $10 million loan to pay two men wrongfully convicted of rape. Alan Northrop and Larry Davis were recently released after spending 17 years in prison, and they’d probably still be there if it weren’t for Innocence Project Northwest, which pushed for the DNA testing that cracked the case.

Two Seattle lawyers volunteered their services to free the duo, but the paychecks kept flowing to Clark County sheriff’s Deputy Don Slagle, who was the lead detective, even though he’d been disciplined 16 times and was the subject of nearly 40 internal affairs investigations, according to the Vancouver newspaper, the Columbian. Those other incidents cost Clark County taxpayers $426,000.

Mercifully, he retired at age 53.

Grow up. Nelson Mandela shared power and a Nobel Peace Prize with a former oppressor and didn’t turn vindictive when he had the chance. But members of Congress can’t team up to pass an annual budget.

He sure had a way of making people look small.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.


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