|USA: SLOW ROAD TO FREEDOM FOR THE INNOCENT
January 4, 2011 The scale on America’s justice system has always been light on white, heavy on black. But this chronic imbalance may be changing thanks to an Afro-American President and Afro-American district attorneys now working to right the many wrongful convictions based on racial prejudice rather then legitimate evidence.
For the last ten years, ever since a painfully slow and reluctant DNA testing was ruled admissible for convicted murderers and rapists, 41 of those convicted nation-wide had to be released after DNA tests proved they could not have committed the crimes that landed them life sentences or a wait on death row.
The latest to be exonerated this month was Cornelius Dupree Jr., 51, who spent thirty years behind bars in Dallas for a rape-robbery he could not have committed. Ironically the results of the DNA tests were announced only after he was paroled last July, evidence of the shameful go-slow of a Texas justice system that admitted DNA testing in 1989, allowed tests for those convicted only in 2001 and today has still 400 convicted prison inmates waiting for DNA tests to prove their innocence.
The ‘beyond any doubt’ clause in our justice system has rarely been applied in America’s south, especially Texas, where the color of a man’s skin made him an instant suspect, where local law officers build their reputations no longer on the speed of their guns but swift arrests, preferably of a black person, where district attorneys saw kangaroo-court convictions for heinous crimes as a quick-step to ambitions for higher office.
In Dallas alone there have been 21 DNA exonerations since the DNA system began in 2001, more then in the rest of the USA together. The reason is not only that Dallas law officials were quick to convict Afro-Americans accused of crimes but that Dallas has kept its DNA samples on file longer then any other district in the country.
More important, Dallas elected Craig Watkins as the first black District Attorney in Texas history. Watkins has accelerated the painfully slow DNA testing process of a city anxious to safeguard the reputations of judges and law officers who apparently conspired to bring in guilty verdicts, especially for crimes that enraged the public, like the rape of a white woman. Obviously the city also wished to minimize claims for compensation for wrongful arrest and imprisonment
In an America where many still insist Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein ordered the attack on the New York twin-towers, judges and prosecutors are determined to safeguard their DNA-tainted reputations by insisting the convictions were legitimate (just like the Iraq war was supposedly legitimate).
Take the now famous case of Roy Brown.
When DNA tests last year proved he was not the killer of a woman neighbor the same Judge, Judge Peter Corning, who had convicted him in 1991 refused to rule on his release. And the same District Attorney who had prosecuted the original case indicated he might retry Brown if he was freed on the merit of the DNA test.
Brown was convicted on evidence of ‘bite marks’ on the corpse, bite marks his teeth could not have made because his upper teeth had been missing for years. Even when DNA tests proved in 2007 the murdered woman’s boyfriend was the killer (as Brown had argued for years) he was still not released. After 15 years in jail he is now free.
All of the 41 convicts freed so far are in liberty thanks to a group of dedicated lawyers who launched the Innocence Project. This New York based legal group represents those suspected of wrongful conviction. The group says the release of just 41 is barely the tip of the iceberg in a United States quick to judge and act but slow to remedy bad judgments.
Uli Schmetzer was foreign correspondent for Reuters News Agency and the Chicago Tribune for over 40 years. He is the author of ‘Times of Terror,’ an autobiography and ‘Gaza’ a journalist’s love story in the Middle East.