This Week In Innocence

10/25/2013 12:45 pm ET | Updated Oct 25, 2013
  • Radley Balko Senior Writer and Investigative Reporter, The Huffington Post
AP

Two Washington state men will get $10.5 million after spending 17 years in prison for a rape they didn't commit.

It's easy to dismiss these exoneration stories as the product of an imperfect system that sometimes makes mistakes. But read past the headline, and you'll see that they're often less the result of miscues by well-intentioned public servants, but the predictable results of willfull misconduct, and a criminal justice system that won't hold bad actors accountable.

In this case, the convictions of Larry Davis and Alan Northrop were largely the work of Det. Don Slagle, who not only pursued them on flimsy evidence while ignoring other leads, but failed to disclose the possibility of other suspects to defense attorneys. Det. Slagle also had a history. And Clark County, Washington, had a history of ignoring that history.

Slagle has a long disciplinary record, including 11 sustained findings for a variety of constitutional and policy violations, including excessive use of force, abuse of authority and dereliction of duty.

In 2006, he was found unfit for duty — the second time in his career — and was allowed to retire with his full pension of $3,639.45 a month.

He also spent several years as the entry man on the SWAT team. Naturally. Despite Slagle's history, the fact that he had withheld exculpatory evidence and the DNA tests, the county still fought in court to avoid awarding Davis and Northrop any compensation. Why? A county prosecutor argued in court that "just because the DNA did not match does not mean Northrop and Davis did not commit the crime." Right. Let a criminal suspect try to make the reverse argument. See what happens.

The county will need to borrow money to pay the settlement, which of course will be footed by taxpayers. Slagle won't pay a dime. Instead, taxpayers will continue to pay for his pension and retirement benefits.

When you see a story like this, it's also important to remember that the percentage of cases for which DNA testing is dispositive of guilt is very small. But the problems that led to these wrongful convictions -- in this case, for example, looking the other way as a bad cop is cited for misconduct 11 times -- are systemic. They're corrupting all cases, not just those with DNA.

Put another way, the fact that we now have advanced DNA testing doesn't mean we can assume that we've stopped convicting innocent people.

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