Another Black Youth, Coerced Confession, And Wrongful Imprisonment

David McCallum, 45, was exonerated last week after spending 28 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.  McCallum was just 16 when police coerced him and a friend (who died in prison in 2001) into signing cop-written confessions filled with falsehoods and inconsistencies.  The charges against the boys made no sense; they were accused of killing a man and stealing his car, but neither knew how to drive.  No physical evidence or witnesses linked them to the murder; recent DNA analysis produced a positive match to someone else.  It’s clear they were innocent.

McCallum’s release came about this way.  A Brooklyn D.A. lost his bid for re-election.  The new D.A. is carrying out his pledge to review more than 100 innocence claims by people prosecuted by that office.

Far from being unique, cases like McCallum’s are common, and illustrate disturbing patterns in America’s criminal justice system:  Racism, cynical cops “solving” crimes with confessions instead of police work, hardened detectives preying on the naivete and inexperience of vulnerable juveniles, prosecutors turning a blind eye to justice to process caseloads and get high conviction rates, a deaf-blind legal system unwilling to undo its mistakes.

The victim’s family is “disappointed” that McCallum was exonerated, as if their feelings matter more than an innocent person’s freedom.  (We saw this same thing happen when lawyers sought to clear the name of a 14-year-old black boy who, in 1944, was given a sham trial and railroaded into South Carolina’s electric chair in what amounted to a judicial lynching.  Although the boy and the alternative suspect are both dead, the lawyers see reopening the case as a means of addressing a historic injustice.)

The detective who sent McCallum to prison isn’t losing sleep over the case; he’s dead now, and probably didn’t think about it when he was alive, as that’s just how things were done.

And still are in many places.  Something like 95% of crimes are “solved” in America with confessions.  This isn’t necessarily totally out of whack, because when crimes are committed, there’s a guilty person or persons who committed them, and confronting suspects with evidence of their guilt and obtaining their cooperation saves a lot of work and scarce resources; but this approach to resolving cases obviously can be, and is, abused by overzealous cops and inattentive or complacent prosecutors.

Courts and judges are supposed to act as a check and balance on the weaknesses and failings of the investigation and prosecution functions, but obviously they’re not doing so very effectively, judging from the large numbers of exonerations being produced by innocence projects across the country.  Part of the problem is the institutional deafness that treats innocence claims as a joke:  “That’s what they all say!”  Problem is, some of them are.  Another pernicious flaw of the system is the practice of denying parole to inmates who insist they’re innocent and were wrongly convicted.  Parole authorities assume the system wouldn’t have convicted them unless they were guilty, and treat inmates’ innocence claims as a lack of remorse and refusal to take responsibility for their actions.  Problem is, some of them were wrongly convicted, and this approach pressures the innocent to admit crimes they didn’t commit, and punishes them with longer prison time if they refuse.

All of these shoddy police and judicial practices historically rested on the unassailability of the guilt assumption attending a guilty verdict.  Once convicted, a person claiming innocence was put in the nearly impossible position of trying to prove a negative, i.e. the verdict was wrong.  The appeals system isn’t geared toward making such judgments; it merely reviews the trial record for procedural errors.  But the advent of DNA technology, which allows for much greater certainty than was ever possible from witnesses or old techniques of analyzing physical evidence, has changed this.  Now, it’s much easier to uncover the criminal justice system’s mistakes.

And that’s upending the old ways of doing things.  For instance, it’s no longer safe to extract confessions with deceit, trickery, intimidation, pressure, coercion, or the old-fashioned “third degree,” because there’s now a high probability that someday the falseness of the confession will be exposed — and the state will be on the hook for compensation that can run into millions of taxpayer dollars.  This will make elected officials unhappy campers; and when they’re unhappy, the underlings toiling in police stations and D.A. offices are made to feel unhappy, too.

DNA is a kind of watermark that makes it much harder to get away with counterfeit convictions.  It’s already changing how cops and D.A.s handle investigations and prosecutions.  We should thank God (or Jehovah, or Whomever) for this technology and its power to convict the guilty and protect the innocent.  But there’s still a legacy of past errors sitting in our prisons that will take time to address.  Many more David McCallums will walk out of our prisons in coming the years.Roger Rabbit icon

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