The US criminal (in)justice system has at least two major flaws. One is some police and prosecutors prioritizing convictions over justice, and the other is them seeking extremely harsh penalties for even minor crimes. Combine that with racial prejudice and the combination is deadly because you can end up with innocent people serving extremely long sentences and even being executed.
As an example of the first type, I wrote recently about how many police line-ups are conducted in a way that witnesses are subtly influenced by the police officers who have arrested a suspect to pick the suspect, instead of using a double-blind method.
As an even more extreme example of the two flaws together, Emily Bazelon writes about a case in 2012 in which 19-year old Yutico Briley was wrongfully convicted of a crime because the prosecutors were more interested in getting a conviction than justice.
Briley ended up facing two kinds of serious charges, he explained. The police stopped him on his way to a store and arrested him for carrying a gun. Then they also booked him for an armed robbery that occurred nearly a day earlier. “I pled guilty to the gun because I had a gun,” he wrote. “I went to trial on the armed robbery because not only was I innocent, I have never robbed nobody in my life.”
Briley told me one more thing. He was sentenced to prison for 60 years without the possibility of parole.
Luckily for Briley, he wrote to Bazelon, who although she has a law degree does not practice law but works as a journalist. She, with the help of her sister who is a law professor, decided to look into the case and found a series of prosecutorial and police wrongdoing that ultimately resulted in Briley being released this year. I know all about the horrors of the US (in) justice system but 60 years without the possibility of parole for this? It is true that he did have a prior conviction for selling drugs but that was at the age of 17. It was this excessive sentence that led Bazelon to look more closely into this particular case out of the many that prisoners contact her about.
I didn’t know whether Briley was telling the truth about his innocence. But either way, an effective life sentence, for a teenager convicted of robbery, seemed excessive. I looked up the case online. Though it’s terrifying to be held up at gunpoint, the victim of the robbery, a man in his 20s, was physically unharmed. He was also the only eyewitness. The police treated Briley as a suspect because he matched aspects of the description the victim gave when he called 911: He was young and Black and wearing a gray hoodie.
In this case, police did not even bother with a lineup. They put just Briley, a Black man, in front of the white victim, a practice known as a ‘show up’, and asked the latter if he was the person. The witness said he was, even though the description he had given police earlier of his appearance and clothes did not match. The judge pointed to the fear of this witness as a reason for the long sentence.
The trial ended three hours after it began, and at the end of the afternoon, the jury found Briley guilty. At Briley’s sentencing hearing a couple of months later, Judge Zibilich gave him a lecture. “I can’t imagine somebody who appeared more scared than this victim did,” the judge said. “The reason why he was so frightened, sir, was because of you. This court is convinced beyond all doubt that you committed this offense. I just don’t simply understand what goes on in this town.”
(Some commenters to my earlier post said that the term double-blind was not appropriate since only the people conducting the line-up should be unaware of who the suspect is. But Bazelon uses that term, since the witness called upon to identify the perpetrator should also not know whom the police suspect of the crime. In the case of ‘show-ups’, the witness clearly knows. A fair line up is one in which the suspect is lined up with similar looking people and thus is single blind. To make it double blind, the people conducting the line up should also not know which of the people in the line up is the suspect.)
To make things worse, Briley’s first lawyer did not look into evidence that Briley pointed him to that showed he had an alibi for the time of the crime.
What helped in freeing Briley was that in 2020, the long-serving New Orleans district attorney Leon Cannizzaro, notorious for asking for long sentences, who had prosecuted Briley’s case and refused to reopen it to look at new evidence, decided not to run for re-election. One of his biggest critics Jason Williams won the race to replace him. Furthermore Franz Zibilich, the judge who had overseen the case originally and issued the long sentence, lost his re-election to Angel Harris, a 36-year-old former public defender and civil rights lawyer.
The new DA started reviewing doubtful cases that his predecessor had obtained convictions for and in March of this year, after hearing the evidence, judge Harris exonerated Briley. But in the meantime, Briley had suffered horribly in prison, being attacked by other inmates and put on suicide watch.. The good news is that he is still young and he seems to be recovering and trying to make something of his life.
While we can celebrate the happy ending of this particular case, the sad truth is that there are undoubtedly many, many other innocent people who are languishing in prison for years, decades, and have even been executed, because police and prosecutors simply did not care about getting at the truth.This is why electing reform-minded district attorneys is so important. Reforming of the police is, of course, long-overdue.
So to sum up, a horrendous set of circumstances resulted in a young person being sentenced to effectively life in prison despite being innocent. And then an utterly fortuitous set of circumstances resulted in him being freed. And that may be the biggest indictment of the system, that random chance plays such a big a role.