Friday, May 29, 2009

Justice denied, justice affirmed

When things go terribly wrong in a community, steps must be taken to ensure that the same mistakes and misjudgments are never made again. When systems are found to be broken or inadequate, they must be repaired or discarded altogether and replaced.

Take the matter of wrongly convicted, innocent persons who suffer incarceration at the hands of the State of Texas because of flawed and often intentionally misleading interrogation methods.

This week, The Dallas Morning News reported on the latest Dallas County man who has been cleared of all charges against him related to the rape of a co-ed at Southern Methodist University in 1986. The report makes it clear that forces were at work in the investigation that assured a wrongful conviction. Obviously, when tried, Jerry Lee Evans did not receive the benefit of the assumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law.

Consider the report by Jennifer Emily:

Dallas County's 20th DNA exoneration expected

Jerry Lee Evans matched the description of the man who abducted and raped a woman in Deep Ellum in 1986. He even had a similar speech impediment.

But today Evans, 47, is expected to walk out of the courtroom a free man because DNA testing shows he is not the man who raped an 18-year-old Southern Methodist University freshman at knifepoint.

Dallas County prosecutors Tuesday pointed to questionable witness identification procedures as a leading reason for his wrongful conviction.

When the woman looked at a six-picture photo spread, Dallas police officers "were leading and encouraging" her to pick Evans out of the photo lineup, said Mike Ware, who oversees the DA's conviction integrity unit. Officers were also "enthusiastically encouraging" after the woman selected Evans.

You'll find the full report here.

Whenever a community's basic systems of justice, fairness and discovery break down this badly, intervention seems necessary. Again, we should be grateful for the leadership of Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. Where would Mr. Evans be without him and his leadership?

But, I'm wondering if more needs to be done to speed up ongoing investigations of other cases that need review?

We have seen now 20 individuals in Dallas County alone who have been freed after serving hundreds of years in prison for crimes committed by others, many of whom remain at large and a danger to us all. Dallas County should consider the formation of a special citizen's commission, a public "justice review board" of sorts, to consider, not individual cases as such, but the processes and patterns that have led to such terrible, unthinkable failure on the part of our criminal justice system.

It is time for systemic change.


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