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The United States justice system is a system that has continuously been called into question based on its handling of certain cases, especially when it comes to dealing with convictions. Of course now the system has been supplied with more reliable ways to obtain evidence and prove innocence, such as DNA or computerized technology. This brings into question what exactly is a wrongful conviction as well as how much has the system improved, if any, because of a greater reliance on DNA evidence?
In 1985, John Thompson, twenty-two, was convicted and put on death row for armed robbery while also facing conviction for murder. In an op-ed he personally wrote for the New York Times, Thompson himself describes the events that led up to his wrongful conviction as well as what it took for prosecutors to later realize that Thompson was in fact innocent. A man that Thompson had bought a ring and gun from later told police that Thompson was responsible for the shooting of another man, and the ring he happened to buy was that of the victim’s while the gun served as the murder weapon. To make matters worse, Thompson’s face was plastered all over the news, and as he recalled, “ a man called in to report that I looked like someone who had recently tried to rob his children.” Based on the victim’s identification, Thompson was convicted of this crime along with the fact that his lawyers did not know of the key blood evidence found at the scene of the robbery.
In relation to Thompson’s murder conviction, Thompson was advised by his lawyers not to testify at this trial and he therefore was unable to provide his side of the story and defend himself. Two years later, Thompson was placed on death row at Angola Prison where he “would end up knowing 12 men who were executed there.” Thompson was given six execution dates, all of which were “exhausted” due to the fact that Thompson continued to use his appeals up until the last in 1999, where his lawyers began to lose hope of Thompson ever escaping death row. In one last attempt, Thompson’s lawyers hired a private investigator to go through the evidence one last time where the investigator went back to the blood evidence found at the crime scene of the robbery. It proved that the blood did not match Thompson, something that could have been proven fifteen years ago if the evidence had been provided to Thompson’s lawyer (Thompson, 2011). The testing of the blood evidence later revealed other witnesses and police reports that had not been given to Thompson’s lawyers either. Had it not been for Thompson’s lawyers continuously fighting against the system to prove his innocence, would Thompson have made it out of death row? This brings into question how the justice system should be improved to ensure the innocence of United States citizens remains until proven guilty.
By the end of 2014, the total number of exonerations across the United States stood at 1,529 (Innocence Project 4). This is taken from a report created by the Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate those who are wrongly convicted by using DNA evidence and working to create reforms for the criminal justice system in order to prevent an increase in “future injustices” (Innocence Project 1). The report states that in terms of exonerated cases, DNA evidence usually proves “false statements about crimes ranging from a simple “I did it” to a fully detailed description” ( Innocence Project 759).This conveys the idea that if more time was taken to carefully look at DNA evidence provided, similar to John Thompson’s case, wrongful convictions could more likely be avoided and more lives would not be so negatively affected.
Although it seems as if more justice would be brought about if all wrongful cases could be exonerated, it is noted in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology that “to obtain a proper sample of DNA exonerations to work with, one must understand that the cases in which DNA exonerations occur are by definition not a random sample of all cases of criminal conviction. Virtually all such exonerations occur in cases of serious felony, often capital felony in which a trial resulted in a conviction” (Risinger 770). The journal similarly calls into question “how much of an injustice” (Risinger 789) many wrongful convictions are; some believe that every wrongful conviction is in fact a serious injustice, which is a major viewpoint the United States justice system should also focus on in hopes of reforming the justice system to make it beneficial for all citizens. This means that what needs to be taken into account is the fact that some types of wrongful convictions may be worse than others, which is key in any moral observation of wrongful conviction cases. The bottom line however remains the same all wrongful convictions are bad even though some are worse, however what should be done to limit them?
It would be easy to say that without proof of complete guilt, no one should be convicted. The problem with this, however is that there would be no convictions at all if every case was faced with a little doubt about guilt. I do believe that if possible, any conviction proved to be wrong that can be exonerated should be corrected, while the system should also accept any ideas of new laws that will prevent wrongful convictions.
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