Author John Grisham & John Flannery
(photo: Holly S. Flannery)
Best-selling crime-writer John Grisham’s recent thriller, “Confession,” discloses how an over-reaching prosecution can coerce an 18 year old black sports hero in Texas into making a false confession corroborated by a lying trial witness. In Grisham’s story, just before the execution, the true murdering rapist comes forward to confess, the lying trial witness recants, but the Texas Governor, State AG and the federal and state courts allow this innocent man to die.
If only this couldn’t happen in the real world.
But right here in Virginia in February 1984, an 18-year old black high school drop-out with no criminal record was arrested when he went to the grocery to buy sweet potatoes and bread for his family’s Sunday dinner.
He had not raped anyone. But the police collected five witnesses who claimed he had.
Thomas spent 27 years in prison until two weeks ago when DNA proved he told the truth – that he was innocent all along.
But even innocence isn’t enough.
Raul Herrera pleaded with the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 to allow him to prove he was innocent, charging it was cruel and unusual to execute an innocent man in Texas or anywhere else. Raul had four affidavits proving his brother confessed to committing the murders. But the Supreme Court said they did not have to allow “every conceivable step … to eliminate the possibility of convicting an innocent person;” there was no constitutional right, they said, to allow a condemned man to prove his innocence. Strapped tight to a gurney, Herrera shouted afterwards, “I am an innocent man, and something very wrong is taking place tonight.” It was the lethal injection that immediately followed.
Our so-called system is broke because of the license that we grant prosecutors.
Jail house snitches sent Steve Barnes to prison in New York for 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit; snitches are wholly unreliable and should be barred if they cannot be corroborated, and by something stronger than another jail house snitch.
Investigators coerce confessions with shouts, threats and lies; in the Central Park jogger case in New York in 1989, the cops harassed five teens into confessing on video to raping a jogger that they had not raped.
Prosecutors sit on evidence of innocence before trial, conceal lying witnesses, hold back details of the charges that they file, all so they may ambush the Accused.
Not all defendants are equal, particularly persons of color or the poor. But even those who begin with resources to fight when they are charged, watch those resources evaporate with damaging media coverage prompted by the government, that often costs the Accused his job, and the trust he once enjoyed in the community. The government may seize assets needed by the Accused to fight the charges, and often demand high or no bail that further shrinks his resources and ability to defend himself from behind bars.
If we don’t fix this system, we will continue to have innocents in custody and even executed – we just won’t know who they are.