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WEB POSTED 01-01-2002
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The criminal injustice system:
Guilty until proven innocent

by Hugh B. Price
-Guest Columnist-

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 through.

 “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 journey, man.”

“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 crime analyst.

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 Urban League.)

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