So How About a Little Criminal Justice?

05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I didn't mean to write a blog post today, I really didn't. But then I finally read that article my mom sent me two days ago from the New Haven Independent in New Haven, Connecticut. The one entitled Outraged Judge Reverses Murder Convictions. (Bless her good heart, but my mom has a funny way of expressing her concern about my blood pressure.)

In 1993, two African American men, George Gould and Ronald Taylor, were arrested and later sentenced to 80 years in prison for the murder of a bodega owner. They were convicted on the basis of testimony from two state witnesses, but even Assistant State's Attorney James Clark, who prosecuted the case in 1995, acknowledged at the trial that "this case rises and falls on the testimony of Doreen Stiles."

Stiles, a heroin-addicted police informant, "was the only supposed eyewitness who placed the defendants at the murder scene. DNA evidence found at the murder scene did not match Gould or Taylor. The state's case rested on Stiles' testimony, as Clark openly admitted during the trial. Stiles came forward and recanted her statement in 2006, allowing the defendants to open a joint habeas corpus claim of actual innocence, based on new evidence."

Now, 16 years after the men entered prison, Superior Court Judge Stanley Fuger, Jr. has ordered that Gould and Taylor be immediately released, "that their convictions and sentences be tossed out, and that the finding of probable cause and even the arrest warrants all be vacated" (emphasis in the original).

Imagine being put away for 16 years for a horrible crime you didn't commit. Think about the horrors inflicted on the body and psyche while in prison, the ties of family and friendship on the outside that do not survive, the fact that even with expunged records these men are indelibly marked by their experience and will be hard-pressed to find the opportunities many of us take for granted. They are 48 and 51 years old now.

Sadly, the presence of innocents behind bars is nothing new. Just since August 2009 at least three men have been released from Connecticut prisons after collectively serving almost 60 years for crimes they demonstrably did not commit. It is famously difficult to prove a negative ("I didn't do X"). That fact, combined with the range of obstacles erected to make it difficult for prisoners to prove their innocence, guarantee that the vast majority of innocents will never be legally exculpated or released.

Here's what's really driving me a little crazy: the things that went wrong in this case were not of the "hey, mistakes happen" variety. Mistakes do happen. Some errors are unavoidable in any system that relies so heavily on human discretion and judgment. But what do we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? We know that even eye witnesses who are not drug-addled often get it wrong. No one should be given an 80-year sentence of the basis of one eyewitness' testimony alone. We guarantee many wrongful convictions when we do that.

And wait, and you say this witness was a police informant? Doreen Stiles was "dopesick" (in withdrawal) on heroin when police detectives picked her up and threatened to book her on a prostitution charge? They promised to buy her heroin and subsequently took her out for a shrimp dinner, according to Judge Fuger's written decision? Stiles had first denied knowing anything about the murder and only "identified" Gould and Taylor in a photo lineup after prompting from the detectives? In the end, they did not charge her with prostitution? Say, whaaaat?!

Both experience and common sense confirm that people like Doreen Stiles with every incentive to bear false witness will often do just that. Surely, law enforcement officers know this as well or better than anyone else. For the police detectives in this case to be an active party to those lies and thereby help send two men to prison is criminal. And where's the accountability for prosecutors here? Can they just do whatever the h*ll they want? They found Stiles' original testimony credible - despite the absence of a DNA or fingerprint match, a murder weapon or motive - but found her recantation years later, while clean and sober and with no incentive to lie this time, not credible?

And it should turn our stomachs to read that Judge Fuger's strongly worded release order is "unprecedented" and "breathtaking" because the general set of circumstances is certainly far from unprecedented. What is breathtaking is the degree of latitude given to law-and-order officials, from police to prosecutors, who themselves have multiple incentives to lock people up regardless of guilt or innocence and too few checks on the exercise of their authority.

On the other side we have a disproportionate number of black and Latino men caught in the cross-hairs, often ignorant of what the law allows, typically lacking the resources to hire the best legal talent, and most often paired with overburdened public defenders. You can be damn well sure that the prosecutor's kid under the same circumstances would not have been arrested to begin with. It's awful and pathetic.

Finally, anyone interested to know what these two innocent men will get from the State of Connecticut in compensation for 16 years of what Judge Fuger called "manifest injustice"? Connecticut has "no compensation law, but statute establishes an 'advisory commission' to investigate wrongful convictions." Twenty-three states have no compensation statutes at all. What would you consider fair compensation if this was your horror or your father's, your friend's, your child's? Now the state is holding up the men's release because they don't want to admit their mistake, don't want to look bad. Ok. How about further compensating these men for the additional lost time, be it a single day? Yep, I'll bet that happens.

George Gould and Ronald Taylor paid for a crime they did not commit. What about Michael O'Hare and especially James Clark, the Assistant State's Attorneys substantially responsible for this awfulness? How about the cops who coerced the original testimony from a could-not-be-more-tainted witness? Or the initial presiding judge who let it all slide?

Ah. Now there's the newspaper expose I'd really like to read.