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It’s OK to Drop Charges if You’ve Got the Wrong Person. ‘It’s Called Doing Your Job.’

  

Category:  Op/Ed

Via:  hallux  •  last year  •  6 comments

By:   Chris Conway & Lisa Belkin - NYT

It’s OK to Drop Charges if You’ve Got the Wrong Person. ‘It’s Called Doing Your Job.’

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T


Since the   Innocence Project   was founded by two New York City lawyers in 1992, some 200 of its clients — people convicted of murder and other crimes and sent to prison, often spending decades behind bars — have been   exonerated   with the help of DNA or other science-based evidence. Several dozen additional exonerations involved evidence other than DNA.

Although the Innocence Project has pioneered this work, others have also labored to free people they believe were wrongly convicted, as Lisa Belkin, a former reporter for The New York Times and the author of the forthcoming book “Genealogy of a Murder,” writes in a   guest essay   this week.

They include the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in the case of Randall Dale Adams, who is the subject of Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” and had been sentenced to death in Texas for the murder of a police officer, and a Florida judge who left the bench to represent Leo Schofield, who has been imprisoned in Florida for the past 34 years for the murder of his wife and is the subject of the   podcast   “Bone Valley,” hosted by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gilbert King.

In both cases, as Ms. Belkin writes, prosecutors continued to hold fast to their belief that the men were guilty, even though others later admitted to the crimes. Though many prosecutors in recent years have shown more willingness to reopen cases in the face of new evidence, others have remained intransigent.

Prosecutions can go awry for many reasons, as the Innocence Project’s founders, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, explained in their book “Actual Innocence,” written with Jim Dwyer, a great reporter and columnist for The New York Times who died in 2020.

“Sometimes eyewitnesses make mistakes,” they   wrote . “Snitches tell lies. Confessions are coerced or fabricated. Racism trumps the truth. Lab tests are rigged. Defense lawyers sleep. Prosecutors lie.”

What puzzled Ms. Belkin after years of covering the justice system as a reporter and author was how, even in the face of seemingly undeniable evidence, some prosecutors vociferously opposed efforts to free people they had convicted. She covered the Adams case in 1989 and listened recently to “Bone Valley.”

“The Schofield case was so like the Adams case that it was the obvious place to ask questions,” she told me. “How do these — what to call them? Obstructionists? Die-hards? True believers? — in prosecutors’ offices become so resistant? There are arguably fewer of them because of changes since Randall Adams, but they are still there.”

The result was her essay:

In March of 1989, I spent two days sitting in a Dallas courthouse among a group of journalists watching justice being blocked.

Randall Dale Adams, who had served 12 years for the murder of a police officer, had been granted a new trial by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. This was a year after the filmmaker Errol Morris essentially proved that he was innocent — and that another man, who essentially confessed to the murder on film in Mr. Morris’s documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” was guilty.

In a   damning ruling , the appeals court accepted the findings of a lower court that Dallas County prosecutors had suppressed evidence favorable to Mr. Adams, deceived the court on the whereabouts of a witness and knowingly used perjured testimony. But prosecutors were still disinclined to let Mr. Adams go.

At a bail hearing, they played games for two days with the court, demanding that the sitting judge be removed from the case, requiring a second judge to fly in from Waco, Texas, only to rule that the first judge could in fact stay. Then the district attorney, John Vance, argued for bail that Mr. Adams could not afford nor probably raise.

“I don’t think Randall Dale Adams ought to be out on the street,” he said of the man his office had railroaded.

Nearly 36 hours after the hearing began, Mr. Adams finally left the building on bail, pending a new trial, after his conviction had been overturned. I have kept a photo of the moment across from my desk for nearly 35 years. Wearing borrowed clothes as he walked to a waiting car, his hands held out in front of him as if still in handcuffs, Mr. Adams was asked by one of the sea of reporters and photographers how it felt to be back in the world.

“I’m not out of Dallas yet,” he said, and seemed to walk faster.

I thought of Mr. Adams often as I kept track of the recent news from Tallahassee, Fla., where the lawyer for Leo Schofield, 57, stood before a room packed with spectators at a parole hearing two weeks ago. Many of those spectators vehemently believed him innocent of the 1987 murder of his wife, Michelle.

The thread that connects the two men is the apparent unwillingness of their prosecutors, despite new evidence, to accept even the possibility that the men they convicted were innocent.

Like Mr. Adams, Mr. Schofield had spent much of a lifetime — 35 years — trying to regain his freedom. As in the Adams case, there was new evidence discovered: Fingerprints that were not tested for 17 years turned out to belong to a man who has been convicted of murder, and that man has confessed to Michelle Schofield’s murder. As in the Adams case, it took an outsider to bring Mr. Schofield’s case attention, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Gilbert King, whose nine-part podcast, “Bone Valley,” has been downloaded   more than six million times .

Most of all, as in the Adams case, the district attorney’s office, this time in Polk County, Fla., spent years fighting Mr. Schofield’s release. At a prior parole hearing a few years ago, the state was represented by a former prosecutor who appeared to take the case personally.

“We investigated this thing upside down,”   said   Jerry Hill, a retired state attorney, in a “Bone Valley” interview with Mr. King’s co-host, Kelsey Decker, minutes after the board denied parole to Mr. Schofield in 2020. “Leo Schofield is a coldblooded murderer. And if I have my way, he’ll never get out of prison.”

“The past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to change,” Stephen King wrote in his opus “11/22/63.” That could have been describing the scene in either Dallas or Tallahassee. As Mr. King’s central character, a time traveler, gets closer to preventing the assassination of John Kennedy, the past throws ever larger obstacles in his way. And so it went in the Adams and Schofield cases, as the prosecutors all but physically barred the jailhouse door.

Much has changed in the American judicial system since Randall Dale Adams walked out of that Dallas jail. For some prosecutors, exoneration has become a point of pride — a sign that the prosecutorial machinery is confident enough to review its own work and admit mistakes. Conviction Integrity Units, also called Conviction Review Units, are particularly robust in some cities, including Detroit and Philadelphia, said Barbara O’Brien, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law. Ms. O’Brien is also editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, which since its founding in 2012 has reported more than 3,000 exonerations that have taken place since 1989, including more than 230 in 2022 alone.

Where prosecutors are not re-evaluating their own convictions, a layer of what Ms. O’Brien calls “professional exonerators” has grown up — groups like the Innocence Project, law school clinics and lawyers working on cases pro bono.


But there are still prosecutors who won’t admit they were wrong, even in the face of substantial evidence. There was no expression of regret from the prosecutors who convicted Randall Dale Adams in Dallas. Nor does one seem likely from the Polk County district attorney’s office, where any defense of Leo Schofield appears to have been seen by its prosecutors as an attempt to subvert the jury’s decision and, by extension, justice.

“It happens less, because back awhile you would regularly see where it was a small town and the state attorney could be the cousin of the sheriff, and who they decided was guilty, was guilty,” said Herman Lindsey, executive director of Witness to Innocence, which provides assistance to exonerated death row inmates. (Mr. Lindsey himself spent three years on death row before the Florida Supreme Court   concluded   the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction. He is one of 30 death row inmates in Florida to be   exonerated   since 1972, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.)

But these wrongful convictions still happen, and not every prosecutor is willing to reconsider a conviction. “While yes, there are more prosecutors willing to be proven wrong, there are still those who show an almost Disney-villain level” of not budging, Ms. O’Brien said, adding that “the Schofield case is beyond the pale, one of the worst I have seen.”

How to explain this stubborn insistence on guilt despite what others perceive as proof of innocence or, at least, enough evidence to warrant another look?

Ms. O’Brien blames “the fact that we have an adversarial system rather than an inquisitorial one,” meaning that the court does not take part in investigating the facts but is rather assumed to be an impartial forum in which prosecution and defense present their opposing arguments. It can attract people who “see things as very black and white, there’s good guys and bad guys, where the goal is the win rather than the truth,” she said.


In other words, it takes absolute certainty to go to work every day and send people to prison for up to a lifetime. And certainty is tricky to surrender. Allowing for the probability that you were wrong once allows for the possibility that you have been wrong often, and opening that door is often unthinkable.

Scott Cupp has seen how prosecutors learn to shut the mental gates against doubt. He was a prosecutor in Florida for 17 years. “I put a lot of folks in prison,” he said, adding, “but before I did, I made damn sure I was right.” Several times during his tenure, he said, he was presented evidence that he had the wrong person and faced reluctance among some of his prosecutors to drop the charges, “but we ended up doing so — it’s called doing your job,” he said.

Then Mr. Cupp became a defense lawyer. In fact, he was Mr. Schofield’s lawyer off and on until he was offered a position as a judge on the 20th Judicial Circuit Court in Charlotte County, Fla., in 2014. The case haunted him while on the bench, and when he heard Gilbert King speak at an event in Naples, Fla., in 2018, he told the reporter to go read the case transcript because his client was “not just wrongly convicted. He’s an innocent man.” In March, Mr. Cupp   stepped down   from his position on the court to defend Mr. Schofield again, full-time and free.

“The system is made up of human beings, and human beings are flawed,” he said. “In this case, you add a relatively small town where law enforcement and prosecution is a big fish in a little pond. It’s ego pure and simple.”

When there is progress in such “small ponds,” therefore, it can be incremental. Hints of such an evolution, however glacial, were visible in the room at the latest Schofield parole hearing Mr. Cupp said. (Parole has been abolished in Florida, one of 16 states to do so, but because that happened after Mr. Schofield was sentenced, he is still entitled to parole.) The room was filled with journalists and sympathetic spectators.

This time, it was Jacob Orr, an assistant state attorney in the 10th Judicial Circuit, who stood to speak; he had not been involved in the original prosecution. “If we thought that Leo Schofield, or any other inmate, was innocent, we would take immediate action to right that injustice,” he   told The New York Times   in January. “However, the state cannot ignore the overwhelming amount of evidence that has proven Leo Schofield guilty.”

But at the hearing he appeared to pivot a bit. While his predecessors had called Mr. Schofield names, handed grisly autopsy photos of his wife to the panel members and argued he should not be released because he refused to express remorse, Mr. Orr simply asked that “you treat this inmate the same as any other,” in determining whether to grant parole.

And so they did. Longtime prisoners in Florida are routinely required to spend a year or two in a unit designed to prepare them for life in the world, and though the panel denied the request for parole, it did order Mr. Schofield to spend 12 months in a transition program at the Everglades Correctional Institution near Miami. Successful completion of the program is likely to result in his release at his next parole hearing in one year.

Perhaps then he will be able to live a quiet life, as Mr. Adams did after his release. When Mr. Adams died in 2010, at age 61, he had spent a fifth of his life in prison and had come within three days of being executed for a crime he did not commit.

Mr. Schofield, who has spent two-thirds of his life in prison for a crime another man says he committed, should have been sent to the lifers program “in 2020 when Jerry Hill came and insisted Leo would die in prison instead,” Mr. Cupp said. But better now than never, he added.


News reports after the hearing “described it as a negative thing, denied parole, and that’s factually correct,” Mr. Cupp said. “But there were positive things that came out of it. The state attorney’s office clearly signaled that they were backing off.”

Finally.


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Hallux
PhD Principal
1  seeder  Hallux    last year

Vengeance cares not if the dish is served hot or cold, it is insatiable and on rare occasions dines on the chef after feasting upon his/her patrons.

 
 
 
devangelical
Professor Principal
1.1  devangelical  replied to  Hallux @1    last year

the other interesting phenomenon is those in authority that cannot accept the fact that they have made a mistake and would rather double down than admit it in the face of overwhelming evidence.

 
 
 
Hallux
PhD Principal
1.1.1  seeder  Hallux  replied to  devangelical @1.1    last year

They're pandering to a side of the fence who shall remain unnamed.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
2  Kavika     last year

Admitting one is wrong seems to be a bridge to far for some prosecutors.

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
2.1  Trout Giggles  replied to  Kavika @2    last year

Just sheer arrogance

 
 
 
Ender
Professor Principal
3  Ender    last year

Sounds like they care more about their record being tarnished than anything else.

 
 

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