Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Lessons from Another Innocent Exonerated

A lot of news outlets and blogs have reported the story yesterday and today of Thomas Doswell. Doswell was convicted of rape 19 years ago after the victim and another witness picked him out of a photo array. DNA evidence has now proved him innocent, and he has finally been released. Two things about Doswell's case struck me.

First, Doswell has been repeatedly denied parole because he refused to accept responsibility for "his crime." This is just one way in which the criminal justice system is tilted against the wrongfully accused. I don't mean that the way you probably think I mean that. I don't believe that the system is designed solely to convict. What I mean is that if you are a guilty person in the system, things tend to work out a lot better for you than if you are an innocent person with evidence that is legally sufficient to convict you. Most criminal cases resolve with a plea bargain. And a plea bargain is called a bargain for a reason. The defense gives up the right to have a trial and the possibility of an acquittal, while the state gives up the possibility of a stiffer sentence after a trial. Put another way, the defendant is willing to give up his chance at acquittal for the certainty of a sentence that is lower than he might get if he were convicted at trial; and the state is willing to give up its chance at a stiffer sentence for the certainty of a conviction which might not come at trial. But someone who is innocent is far less likely to accept a plea bargain. Many judges, in fact, will not accept a plea bargain from a defendant who will not acknowledge his guilt in open guilt. The result of all this is that innocent people are more likely to go to trial where, if convicted, they are more likely to receive stiffer sentences than were offered to them as a plea bargain. Moreover, like Mr. Doswell, innocent people who are convicted are less likely to admit guilt at parole hearings, and therefore more likely to be denied parole and forced to serve their entire sentences. This is a perverse result. Yet, I'm not sure if there is any sort of workable solution. I don't have enough time today to think about how this problem could be eliminated, or, at the least, lessened. Anyone out there have any ideas?

Second, why the heck did the prosecutors in the case oppose DNA testing in the first place? If there is biological evidence to test, and identification (as opposed to consent) was an issue at trial, what basis is there to oppose testing? How much longer did Mr. Doswell labor in jail because of the prosecution's opposition? I hate it when I read stuff like that. I honestly believe that most prosecutors out there are trying to do justice. And I just don't understand why a prosecutor wanting to do justice would oppose DNA testing in case like this.


Blogger abigail said...

Great job on your talk on dna testing. I have a dna testing secrets blog if you wanna swing by my place!

9/12/2005 10:15 PM  

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