Police officers are increasingly being required to wear body cameras so that their use of force can be documented and judged. But what about the action that takes place behind the scenes -- in police stations and prosecutors' offices? It's time to think about what measures can be put in place to hold all law enforcement accountable. As an innocent prisoner and avid writer on wrongful convictions, I say it's time not to only present solutions, but enforce them, too.
We are living in a time when police body cams can help determine if an arrest was warranted, if the officer used excessive force, and if a killing was justifiable. When society can't trust the police who are supposed to protect and serve, it's a serious problem -- one that needed to be addressed a long time ago.
But what's being done to prevent the innocent from going to prison and remaining there for crimes we never committed? I have some ideas for safeguards. Eyewitness testimony must be heavenly scrutinized before it's used as probable cause to incarcerate someone. Video recording all witness statements is crucial. If the accused makes a statement or confession, it must be video recorded, instead of taking the authorities' word for it.
Penalties should be implemented for prosecutors who are responsible for failing to turn over case discovery (evidence) to the defense prior to trial, or if they come across anything favorable to the defense afterwards and withhold it. Suspension or termination of a prosecutor's law license should be decided on the severity of their misconduct. It should be mandatory that an attorney has tried a minimum number of cases before if a defendant faces an extreme amount of time.
Our laws have yet to catch up with science. Eyewitness misidentification has been a factor in 75% of wrongful convictions that were subsequently overturned by DNA evidence. In a recent decision out of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the court ruled in favor of defendant James A. Dennis, an innocent man who has been on death row for the last twenty-five years. In his concurring opinion, Chief Judge Theodore McKee stated, "It is obvious as it is tragic, that mistaken identifications have disastrous effects for the unjustly accused."
Judge McKee went on to say that "mistaken identifications 'also erode public confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole.'" Unfortunately, in Mr. Dennis's case, there was grave prosecutorial misconduct, including the withholding of crucial evidence of Mr. Dennis's innocence. Judge McKee is an excellent judge. In 2011 he was responsible for vacating my own wrongful conviction, although, unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court subsequently reinstated it. The sad thing is that Judge McKee never got an opportunity to view evidence of my innocence -- evidence the prosecution withheld for eighteen and a half years.
Another sad case, but happy ending: On August 23, 2016, innocent prisoner Anthony Wright, who spent twenty-five years in prison, was acquitted at his second trial by a jury after just one hour of deliberation. DNA evidence and evidence of police and prosecution misconduct led to Mr. Wright's acquittal, but, after it became known that law enforcement fabricated evidence against him, the state continued to maliciously prosecute him until the jury finally acquitted him.
Besides the fortunate innocent prisoners with attorneys or Innocence Projects that support them, we are pretty much stuck between a rock and a hard place. The process we go through to get the help of attorneys or innocence projects takes us years or even decades. Some of us get lost in the system that stole our lives.
Let me take it a step further. Here in Pennsylvania, the state press policy clearly states that under no circumstances may a prisoner face be photographed, videotaped, or filmed. In the case of audio recording, we shall only be referred to by our first name. Pennsylvania selects prisoners for interviews based on several considerations including whether or not the prison feels confident or concerned about what we will say publicly and whether we might bring unwanted media attention to the Department of Corrections. Why is this and what's to hide?
In the past, under English common law, if a prosecutor used false testimony to convict an innocent person, once discovered, the prosecutor would be convicted and sentenced to the time sentenced to the innocent.
Today, here in America, when a prosecutor convicts the innocent, and it is learned that s/he used false evidence -- nothing happens. They don't even lose their law license. In most cases, they don't even apologize! I will ask again: What's going to protect the innocent and how long will this continue?
Lorenzo Johnson served 16 and a half years of a life-without-parole sentence until 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 him back to prison to resume the sentence. With the support of The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, he is continuing to fight for his freedom. Though he does not have internet access himself, you can email his campaign, make a donation, or sign his petition and learn more at: http://www.freelorenzojohnson.org/sign-the-petition.html.