With the rate of exonerations at a historic high, wrongful convictions can no longer be ignored. Every Sunday, people can tune in to CNN to watch Death Row Stories or BET for Vindicated and see how the judicial system has failed many innocent men and women. The time these wrongfully convicted individuals have spent in prison can be anywhere from a year to three or four decades.
Society gets an up-close look at judicial corruption from TV shows like these. Some viewers will never look at the judicial system the same way again -- their faith in the courts has been shattered. Once, society was used to accepting whatever officers of the court said; we never questioned why or how a person was criminally charged or convicted. Now, we have the opportunity to sit back and witness how an innocent person is framed, maliciously prosecuted, and convicted. The same system that was believed to protect us from harm can be seen destroying innocent people's lives. Society's faith in the judicial system has been shaken by wrongful convictions. Can it be restored?
First, let me clarify -- I would be lying if I said that the whole judicial system is corrupt. But why do the good people in our judicial system stand by while such misconduct takes place, instead of calling out those responsible? From the crooked cop all the way up to the judge who refuses to do the right thing for innocent people who have been wronged -- many people are responsible for securing wrongful convictions. When criminal prosecutors have absolute immunity in initiating a prosecution and in presenting a state's case, how can they ever be held accountable for falsely prosecuting and convicting innocent people? Consider last year's record-breaking number of exonerations -- 125 in all. How many prosecutors, police officers, judges, or lawyers were fired for their participation in these 125 wrongful convictions?
I'm a victim of a wrongful conviction, and for 19 years the prosecutors in my case intentionally withheld portions of my case discovery -- documents that show they knew I was innocent from day one. You might think that, after turning this favorable evidence over, the prosecution would no longer stand in the way of justice. But instead of doing what's right, my prosecutor is trying to prevent me from appealing my conviction. He said that because his office had an "open file" policy with my prior attorneys, I have no grounds for appeal. But my prior attorneys have signed affidavits stating they never saw these crucial documents in my case discovery before now. This means that my prosecutor is not even arguing about my guilt or innocence anymore -- he's arguing that I should not be able to appeal my conviction because I should have found this evidence (which his own office hid) sooner.
It's extremely sad to say but, for these crooked prosecutors, the motto may as well be: Get a conviction by any means and let the chips fall where they may. Prosecutors commit crimes by imprisoning innocent people and then hide behind their absolute immunity when a prisoner's innocence is finally revealed. The million-dollar question is how can society's faith in the judicial system be restored?
Let's start by enacting a law that enforces mandatory minimum prison sentences for all officers of the court who knowingly and intentionally arrest, prosecute, and convict innocent people. A showing of zero tolerance by our judicial system to the culprits behind wrongful convictions would show society that a change has finally come. Until that happens, unfortunately, wrongful convictions are here to stay. Tomorrow, you could become the next victim. Meanwhile, wrongfully convicted prisoners like myself will continue to suffer and spend decades behind bars for crimes we never committed.
Wrongful convictions hurt far more people than just those of us who are incarcerated. It starts with the original victim of the crime and their family, who believed that the person who was arrested and convicted was the person responsible. Then, their mental and emotional scars are reopened when they find out the person they were told was guilty in fact was not. Then there are the families, friends and supporters of wrongfully convicted people. Their lives are crushed by these ordeals. But the people responsible for all this pain do not even lose sleep over it. Tomorrow, they'll just go back to work in our judicial system. And let's not leave out that the culprits of these crimes are seldom even charged.
Our highest court can also help solve this problem and restore faith in our judicial system. The time has come for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit Imbler v. Pachtman (1976). This case involved the deliberate introduction of false testimony by a prosecutor and established the prosecution's immunity from civil suits in such situations. The U.S. Supreme Court has to do away with prosecutors' absolute immunity. When this takes place, our judicial system will help us start our healing process en route to restoring our confidence. But until then, we all must pay attention to what's going on and hold the people we vote into office accountable.
Lorenzo Johnson served 16 and a half years of a life-without-parole sentence, from 1995 to 2012, when the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled there was legally insufficient evidence for his conviction. He remained free for four months, after which the US Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the conviction and ordered Lorenzo back to prison to resume the sentence. With the help of Michael Wiseman, Esq., The Pennsylvania Innocence Project The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, The Campaign to Free Lorenzo Johnson, and others, he is continuing to fight for his freedom. Email him or sign his petition and learn more at: http://www.freelorenzojohnson.org/sign-the-petition.html.