A Promise of Justice

“A Promise of Justice,” by David Protess and Rob Warden.

A PROMISE OF JUSTICE, by David Protess and Rob Warden, 1998, tells the story of four men who were framed by police and prosecutors and put in prison and on death row for eighteen years. Although you know before reading the book that the men were eventually exonerated, the book grips you.

It’s a courageous, honest, and intelligent story of prosecutorial corruption and defense lawyers’ almost superhuman incompetence. Despite the paranoia that events like these create in victims of injustice and the cynicism they foster in do-gooders, this should be received as a hopeful book, proof that injustice is not invincible.

But hope should not become complacency. As the authors write:

“There’s no way to know how many wrongful convictions there are, but even if the error rate in the criminal justice system were only one percent there’d be more than ten thousand cases in the country.”

The police in this case had a standard procedure of keeping two files, one of them secret. The prosecutors had sophisticated systems in place for stifling the truth. These facts suggest an “error rate” potentially higher than one percent.

Citing a book by Michael Radelet, the authors report that there have been 421 Americans this century convicted of capital crimes and later proved innocent. In 23 of these cases the proof came too late.

In this case, the police had good leads on the actual criminals. These were kept quiet because of political connections until the wrong men had been publicly accused. After they had accused four men, prosecutors did not want to switch to accusing different ones just because the new ones looked like they might really be guilty. So the evidence was buried.

As a result, four families were ruined, and at least one of the actual criminals committed at least one more murder, thus destroying more lives. And, of course, courts were tied up with endless hours of ridiculously pointless work, while trust and relations between citizens and police was horribly damaged.

No police officers or prosecutors were charged with any crimes in this matter. Perhaps this book is an argument that they should be. Or perhaps it is an argument against the bizarre U.S. system of ELECTING prosecutors. On the last page of the book, one of the four victims of this outrage proposes five changes to the current system:

“abolishing capital punishment, allowing petitions for new trials to be presented any time evidence of innocence is discovered (a right that has been severely curtailed by the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996), repealing legislation intended to speed up capital appeals, raising the standards and reducing the caseloads of defense lawyers working at public expense, and ensuring every defendant’s right to test possible DNA evidence”

He goes on:

“These changes are absolutely vital if you don’t want to repeat what happened to us, and to many other victims of our system.

“But it seems that a whole lot of people nowadays – they call themselves ‘reformers’ – want to cut back our legal rights when we need most to protect them.

“What motivates these pseudo reformers to promote injustice?

“I think it’s fear. There’s fear of crime, fear of different skin colors, fear of admitting mistakes.

“You got people here in government who’re so scared, and who represent people who’re so scared, that they build more and more prisons while doing away with the safeguards that prevent them from being filled with innocent people. That’s frightening to me.

“We can’t go on being so scared of each other. We have to find a common ground, or else justice will be nothing more than just a promise – an empty promise.

“I’ve been afraid, and I guess you could say I used to be a racist, too. But it was mostly white folks who stepped up to help us.

“So there’s one thing I learned for sure in eighteen years: If we can conquer our fears – whatever they are – there’s NOTHING we can’t do.”

This book contains a list of 21 other good books about miscarriages of justice and two about death row, and recommends the following website: http://www.ninelives.org.