There is so much that is wrong with the US (in)justice system that one does not know where to start with trying to reform it. From overly-aggressive police departments, over-zealous prosecutors more interested in gaining convictions than justice, and a legal system where one needs good lawyers to get even a shot at justice but many people simply do not have access to them and the public defenders offices, while often endeavoring mightily on behalf of their indigent clients, simply are overwhelmed. And all that is soaked in a deep-rooted racist mentality. Changing all those things requires money and political will to go against the punitive mindset that seems to prevail
But if one were to start with something significant but feasible, it might be with the parole system that in theory enables prisoners to obtain release before completing their sentence provided they have given evidence of good behavior and the promise of not returning to crime. There is one aspect of it, however, that is a problem and that is the requirement that one must admit guilt for the crime before one is eligible for parole at all. This puts those who have been wrongfully convicted because of all the problems listed in the first paragraph, in a bind. If they admit to a crime that they did not do, they may get an early release. But they are forever barred from trying to establish their innocence and also they and their families have to live with the stigma of having committed a crime.
David Leonhardt writes about two cases that argue that the requirement be dropped.
Jeffrey Clark and Garr Keith Hardin were the victims of an unjust murder prosecution near Louisville, Ky., during the mid-1990s.
A jailhouse informant made up a story about one of them confessing. The police did not pursue a lead involving an actual confession to the murder. A dishonest detective — Mark Handy, later discovered to have fabricated evidence — testified against Clark and Hardin. And the prosecutor misled the jury about a fingerprint and a hair sample at the crime scene.
The jury convicted the two men, then both in their early 20s, and they were sentenced to life in prison. They would spend more than 20 years there before lawyers for the Innocence Project helped win their release, based on DNA evidence and the exposure of the detective’s dishonesty.
At that point, you might have expected the criminal justice system to apologize to the two men and leave them alone. Instead, prosecutors announced plans to try them again for the murder — and even added a perjury charge against Clark. Why? Partly because, in an attempt to win parole while in prison, Clark had decided to admit to the murder and express remorse.
Parole hearings create a terrible Catch-22 for wrongfully convicted people. If they admit guilt, they can undermine any attempt to overturn their conviction. If they continue to assert their innocence, they can doom their best chance at freedom — parole — because parole applications effectively require statements of remorse.
Joseph Gordon, a 78-year-old man in New York State, falls into the second category. He has already served more than his minimum sentence of 25 years for a 1991 murder, and multiple prison officials and guards have supported his parole application. Gordon has “the character and moral compass to return to society as a productive member of his community,” wrote a former superintendent at Fishkill Correctional Facility, where Gordon is incarcerated.
But the parole board has refused to release him. The chief reason, according to the board, is Gordon’s continuing insistence of his innocence.
You can read Gordon’s full story in this recent Times article by Tom Robbins. The details of the case are messy and tragic. Gordon clearly committed a crime: He covered up the killing of a 38-year-old doctor who may have been having a sexual relationship with Gordon’s 16-year-old son. Gordon says that his son killed the doctor and the cover-up was an attempt to protect his son.
“I was not going to put my son in prison,” Gordon said.
After reading about the case, I don’t feel confident about what happened. But there are good reasons to doubt that Gordon committed the murder, and his lawyers argue that guilt is no longer the central question anyway. They told me that they are confident he would have been released by now if he had simply abandoned his innocence claim, based on his age, his prison record and the pattern of other parole decisions.
Forcing admissions of guilt in order to obtain a benefit is a form of coercion, not unlike the treatment given routinely to the prisoners in Guantanamo who, even though the US does not have the evidence to convict them, are tortured until they confess to whatever the US wants them to. The US demands this before they release the prisoners because they can then claim that holding them for years on end was justified.
As I have said so many times, the US injustice system is appalling in its cruelty and vindictiveness. Getting rid of this feature will not solve the problems. But it will ease the lives of at least some people.