It might be the most fantastic thing to ever blog about in 2009.

Amidst the seemingly unstoppable flow of judicial mistakes that has been plaguing the United States in the last ten years, a glimmer of hope is shining from inside New York City: the Innocence Project is an extremely ambitious, and hungrily necessary non-governmental organization aiming to work alongside wrongfully convicted prisoners and restaure them to their lives through DNA testing and relevent legal representation. More importantly, the Innocence Project works towards a profound reform of the judicial system that has been leading to unlawful death sentences and hasty life convictions.

Death row unit in Texas

Death row unit in Texas

The Innocence Project compiled a thorough database of all the past and current cases on which the staff has been working, resulting in releases and exonerations.  Far from providing a simple base for academic or professional research, it also asks the question, still taboo to this day, of the aftermath: how can a former convict resume his life after spending several decades in jail for a crime he didn’t commit? What are the psychological ramifications and the future relation to a judicial system that failed to provide what it was created for – equality, fairness and balance? Prematurely aged, suffering from various mental and physical illnesses, out of a touch with their families, a support network has to be implemented in order to ensure a safe and relatively smooth return to life after living in parenthesis for so long; financial damages are rarely ever enough.

What is particularly striking with the Innocence Project is the fantastic amount of legal work they perform at grassroots level: several states have already commenced an interesting reform of the system that will not only decrease the number of wrongful convictions, but also simplify the appeal process (severely diminished by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, as well as in the very last years of the Clinton Administration, during which appeals for convicts in death row were not only expensive and long, but rarely resulted in a satisfying sentence overturn). Twenty-four states, among which Texas, California, Florida and Colorado have implemented state laws on the preservation of evidence, tha proves to be extremely useful and salvaging during appeal processes, that can last for over ten years.  Because of the complexity of launching a post-conviction DNA testing process, The Innocence Project has reported that “one-third of cases closed by the Innocence Project were closed because of lost or missing evidence.” Colorado was the last state to date to modify the law in May 2008. Following the wrong murder conviction of Timothy Masters, DNA testing on the remaining biological evidence helped prove his innocence.

Perhaps one of the most controversial issues, recorded interrogations, have only been allowed in thirteen states so far.  Recording custodial interrogations could help decrease the statistics on torture and unlawful application of force on suspects, leading to false confessions. In the highly mediatic case of Troy Davis, a recorded interrogation could have arisen suspicions on the police behaviour leading him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. Intimidation or simply fear, on a lesser level, could lead to a confession, that can’t be overruled in a court of law unless stress and duress could be proven to have been conducive to the confession. This reform would be tremendous step forward to the respect of human rights and a lawful, ethical pursuit of justice in murder and rape investigations. If only a handful of states have adopted this reform by legislation, the Innocence Project is reporting that approximatively 500 jurisdictions have voluntarily adopted the tape or electronic recording of interrogations. It is important to note that this reform does not aim at strictly monitoring police behaviour, but could also help their investigation by recording subtle details that might be missable at first sight.

In Texas, a wrongfully convicted person is awarded $50,000 per year of incarceration (double if the sentence received was a death sentence). California only compensates to the maximum amount of $100 a day, and Montana receives the originaly prize for providing educational aid. But reinsertion is far from being an easy road to travel. The case of Charles Chatman, exonerated after spending 27 years in prison in Texas, confided to NBC that he still feels emprisoned. He talks about his impossibility to be employed: “They apologize because they can’t give me the job. I don’t have a work history, I don’t have work references, and anything that I knew how to do before I went in, I haven’t been able to do in 27 years.” Chatman was a client of the Innocence Project. He was exonerated last year based on DNA evidence proving his innocence.  Aged 21 when he was sentenced, Chatman is now 48, with most of his life behind him.

From bad lawyering to government misconduct, the Innocence Project has efficiently and successfully targeted all the flaws in the system and needs moe exposure, and more help, to carry on the fundamental work of reforming a judicial system that failed so many individuals. From the overwhelming support given to Troy Davis – in vain – to those less mediatically exposed, a properly functioning society rests on values of fairness and equality. It’s time to restore them and put them back where they belong.

Check out the Innocence Project website.

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