Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I love my country. And I think we have the best government and legal system, based on the Rule of Law, beginning with and rooted in the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights.

But, it’s still an imperfect system. Sometimes — more often than most of us imagine or care to admit, probably — the practice of our founding principles fall short. Period. I’m sure you can think of a couple examples.

“Innocent until proven guilty.”

hands in cuffs - orange jumpsuitThis is at the core of Western judicial systems (though its roots can be found in ancient Hebrew law) and is the most famous maxim of our judicial system. It is supposed to assure us that citizens (and other residents) will not be railroaded and punished without being ably represented in a fair trial where guilt is determined or not by a showing of evidence, etc. We will be considered innocent before the law — even if not before the public & media — and treated as such (with a few reasonable precautions taken, I suppose). Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way.

As a sad example, I’d like to reproduce an excerpt of a case that I found in Lies the Government Told You by Judge Andrew P. Napolitano. [Note: I don’t always agree with the judge or appreciate his tone, but the book does have some good information, particularly of certain court cases.] You may also be familiar with it via the book or TV miniseries called Fatal Vision.

“Sadly, the Supreme Court has also held that once an innocent man is found guilty by a jury, he cannot appeal on the basis that he has proof of his actual innocence. The court held that the Due Process Clause did not require that ‘every conceivable step is taken, at whatever cost, to eliminate the possibility of convicting an innocent person.’ So while the basic premise of our system is preached to be that no innocent man be jailed, no matter how many guilty go free, apparently this does not apply when the cost of ensuring this gets too high….

The Herrera v. Collins decision is especially frightening when considered in the light of the falsely convicted persons who have been proven innocent through DNA analysis. It only shows how indisputably false is the idea that our system protects the innocent. And while the government can continue to preach what it wants us to believe, it is widely apparent that the innocent, especially after they have had their day in court, no longer matter, even when they have incontrovertible evidence of their innocence.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization created by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, strives, through DNA analysis, to free the innocent who have been wrongly convicted and incarcerated. Unsurprisingly, one of its discoveries was that governmental misconduct was a factor in 50 percent of their first seventy-four DNA exonerations. The majority included suppression of exculpatory evidence by the police and prosecution, knowing use of false testimony, coercing witnesses, and fabricating evidence. These are the actions of the same governments whose schools so strongly claim to believe in ‘innocent until guilt is proven.’

The prosecutors and police officers, who are supposed to enforce the law, are actually ensuring that the innocent are proven guilty, all the while claiming that their suspects are presumed innocent. The question is though, if they believed their lies, why would they suppress and fabricate evidence? Why would they feel the need to coerce witnesses? Either they want the innocent to be jailed or they actually do not believe in the presumption, and feel that those whom they suspect are ‘guilty’ are indeed guilty, no matter what the law says and no matter what evidence contradicts their beliefs.

The examples of this type of conduct are wide-ranging; but one extreme example lies in the case of Jeffrey R. MacDonald, M.D. Dr. MacDonald was a twenty-six-year-old Army captain living on base with his wife and two young daughters and leading a very fulfilling life. Having accomplished the goals he had set for himself, Jeffrey was a successful and happy man. But that happiness was shattered on February 17th 1970. Intruders broke into his home, brutally murdered his wife and two daughters, and attempted to murder Jeff himself. Resuscitated by the military police, he was rushed to the hospital, where he remained in the Intensive Care Unit for over a week for treatment of his multiple stab wounds, as well as a collapsed lung. While on the way to the hospital, Jeff described the intruders as a woman with long, blond hair covered by a floppy hat, and two other males, one white and the other black. With these descriptions he provided to police, he hoped that justice would be served and those responsible for the killings would be held responsible. Yet, rather than follow up, the government focused on Jeff as its prime suspect from the beginning of the case, even when the Army had investigated and cleared him and had given him an honorable discharge.

prison cellIt took them nine years, until one of the Army lawyers assigned to the case, Brian Murtagh, was transferred to the Department of Justice and realized that the case had not yet been closed. As there were no suspects, Murtagh decided to refocus attention on Jeff. And his witch hunt led to what amounted to a story backed by only the most minute of circumstantial evidence. Unfortunately for Jeff, the one witness who could have helped, Helena Stoeckley, who had testified for the prosecution so many times in many other cases and had herself confessed to the crime, was determined to be an ‘unreliable witness,’ and therefore those persons to whom she had confessed were not permitted to relate that testimony to Jeff’s jury. During her testimony, Helena admitted to owning a blond wig and floppy hat but had destroyed them, because they connected her to the murders. Still, the jury convicted Jeff, and he was sentenced to three life terms. His conviction was originally overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and he had a taste of freedom, until in 1982, when the Supreme Court reinstated his conviction and returned him to prison.”

Sounds like Dr. MacDonald just couldn’t catch a break! Hold on, it gets worse….

“Of course, Jeff filed multiple appeals, but the trial judge denied them all. Helena Stoeckley continued to confess to various individuals her role in the murder. Jeff also found out that the prosecution had hidden exculpatory evidence and lied to the jury, claiming that no signs of intruders were found even though Jeff found case file notes stating that long, blond wig fibers had been found, as well as black wool fibers not linked to the house. He also learned that a crime lab tech had falsely testified that the synthetic blond hair found at the scene did not come from a wig. This same crime lab tech would later be fired from the lab when evidence was found of multiple deceptions in various cases.

One of the prosecutors on the case, James Blackburn, was later disbarred and charged with twelve counts of dishonesty, including embezzlement and changing court documents. A former U.S. Marshal came forward twenty six years later (How could he live with himself — waiting so long before coming forward — while Jeff was in a federal prison?), avowing and passing a polygraph stating that he had witnessed a conversation between Helena Stoeckley and the prosecutor, wherein she confessed to committing the murders, and the prosecutor threatened to indict her for murder if she testified to that.

Even when DNA results were finally available in 2006, eight-and-a-half years after they had been ordered, and multiple hairs were found at the scene that did not match Jeff or the rest of his family, one of which was grasped in two-year-old Kristen’s hand as if torn from her attacker’s head, the federal judge who replaced the original trial judge refused to grant a new trial.

Finally, in 2007, after Helena had died, Jeff heard from Helena’s mother, who stated that Helena had confessed to her and explained that she could not tell the truth on the stand because she was afraid of the prosecutor, and the mother had not come forward earlier because she, too, was afraid.

DNA strand and handcuffsEven with all this evidence, the trial judge held that since Helena was dead, even if all the testimony about and from her was true, there was no way anyone could know how her fear of the prosecutor affected her testimony, and therefore the appeal was denied. Jeff’s actual innocence was of no import to the government. All that mattered was that he was not denied any constitutional protections at his trial. Doesn’t the Constitution protect against wrongful imprisonment?

After thirty years of fighting for his innocence, Jeff, with the help of the Innocence Project, has filed another appeal with the Fourth Circuit. He might be able to make it out of jail for his sixty-sixth birthday and be given the freedom that innocent people have as a natural birthright.”

This is truly a travesty of justice.

Now, Napolitano likes to accuse “the government” of lots of things, sometimes to the point of conspiracy theories. I’d like to point out that “the government” is made up of lots of departments, offices, and agencies, which are all, in turn, made up of many fallible men & women. Men & women that can be lazy, sloppy, greedy, foolish, selfish, apathetic, etc. I don’t think “the government” conspired to purposely keep an innocent man in jail. I think a confluence of events involving lots of people — some lacking principle, apparently — worked against Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald. But, going back to the beginning of this post, the relevant point is that this poor man was presumed guilty from the beginning and was thrown in jail before “a reasonable doubt” could fairly be established. And, as prosecutorial misconduct and exculpatory evidence was revealed, the courts have stubbornly refused to consider (or care) that a truly innocent man has been sitting in jail for decades.

Very sad.

If you’re interested, here’s a more detailed timeline of events for the case. This site gives an overview of the case, evidence, timeline, persons, etc.

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