The criminal injustice system:
Guilty until proven innocent
by Hugh B. Price
Convicted as a teenager in 1982 of rape,
Marvin Lamont Anderson spent 15 years in a Virginia state prison—for a
crime he didn’t commit.
Convicted while teenagers in 1987 of rape
and murder, Calvin Ollins, his cousin Larry Ollins, Omar Saunders, and
Marcellius Bradford spent more than 14 years in Illinois state
prisons—for a crime they didn’t commit.
This month the convictions of these five
men—and the decade and a half they spent in prison—were all shown to
have been a grievous wrong: DNA evidence proved they were not the
individuals who committed the heinous acts.
In other words, years after these men were
charged and found guilty of crime and declared by the state to be unfit
for the company of decent people, they have been proved innocent.
“A verbal apology would be nice,” Marvin
Lamont Anderson said recently, in what can only be described as
tremendous understatement, when the news of the DNA results came
“And then,” he added, “I’d like my name
scratched from the state computer files still listing me for the heinous
crime of rape.”
Anderson, now 37 and a truck driver in
Virginia, has been on parole since 1997. He is Black and was originally
sentenced to 210 years in prison by an all-white jury in the rural
Virginia town where the crime occurred.
Police suspicion focused on him because he
was then living with a girlfriend who was white, and the rapist had
bragged to the victim that he had been with white women before,
according to Peter Neufeld, one of Anderson’s attorneys and co-director
with Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo
School of Law, in New York City.
The Innocence Project has played a leading
role in the use of DNA testing to “prove innocent” people wrongly
convicted of crime. Neufeld told the Washington Post that
Anderson is the 99th inmate convicted of rape and murder in the country
to be cleared by DNA testing.
Halfway across the country in mid December
at the Illinois state prison at Joliet, Calvin Ollins greeted his cousin
Larry Ollins in their first moments of freedom with the words, “Long
“What did I tell you?” Larry Ollins replied,
“Hold on, right?”
The conviction of these men for the 1986
rape and murder of a Chicago medical school student appears even more
fraught with official misconduct. Their attorney, Kathleen T. Zellner,
has said the case raises serious questions that deliberate police
misconduct occurred, including coercion of statements from the
defendants and some witnesses and false testimony by a police department
Meanwhile, the persons responsible for both
crimes remain unknown. For both the victims—the women who were targets
of the crimes and the men who were the targets of the “official”
injustices—justice was not served.
These poignant and dramatic cases are just
the two latest of a development that has become, not frequent, but
disturbingly common in the administration of criminal justice in
America: the release of (largely) men who were convicted at trial and
have spent years, and in some cases, decades in prison for crimes they
did not commit.
Of course, the most dramatic instances of
this have been the death-row cases in Illinois.
Last year Governor George Ryan declared an
indefinite moratorium on executions there after 13 death-row inmates
were proved innocent of their accused crime through DNA testing. For
most of those men, the testing came years after the date of their
executions had first been set.
These cases raise the most alarming question
about the administration of justice in this country—a point Rob Warden,
director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern
University Law School made to the New York Times.
“When we see the vast numbers of errors that
occur in these relatively few DNA cases, what does that say about the
rest of the system? We can only wonder about how many innocent people
we’ve executed and how many hundreds, thousands of people are
languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit.”
If, as Warden suggests—as we must—we were to
expand the effort to examine the validity of questionable convictions
beyond the relative fraction of cases that have come under scrutiny thus
far, what would we find?
I suspect most Americans would be shocked to
see how rotted the foundations of the pillars of the criminal justice
system have become.
Racism—institutional and individual—has
played a significant part in the making of the problem at both the
juvenile and adult levels, as study after study has documented.
But it goes beyond even that to practices
and attitudes of those who administer the criminal justice system that
need to be fixed. For we’ve already gotten too much evidence that for
too many people—those victimized by crime and those accused of
crime—what we have now is a criminal injustice system.
(Hugh Price is president of the National