Captives of Flawed Justice Systems
As citizens demand tougher crime laws and fewer restraints on police, cases of wrongful conviction point to unresolved problems in law enforcement
A shock of black hair drooped across Guy Paul Morin's forehead as a wide, satisfied smile formed on his lips and his eyes filled with emotion.Skip to next paragraph
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''I'm free, that's how I feel,'' an exultant Mr. Morin said on the steps of a Toronto courthouse Jan. 23, moments after an Ontario judge quashed his 1992 murder conviction. ''I took one day at a time. I think that's why I survived.''
Morin was always an innocent man. But it took two trials and nearly 10 years to prove to judges and juries in Canada that he was not a brutal child murderer. Morin's innocence was established beyond a doubt only when a genetic DNA test showed he could not be the killer.
Two years earlier, Ontario prosecutor Leo McGuigan had convinced a jury that Morin was a sadistic killer who deserved a life prison sentence. ''The justice system in this country is run by human beings,'' Mr. Mcguigan told reporters after Morin was freed. ''It does, on occasion, make mistakes. This was one of them.''
But Morin and his lawyers say police and prosecutors are guilty of far more than innocent mistakes. Morin was an easy target, they say, in a highly charged case in which authorities were under pressure to convict someone.
''I think I was just the fall guy, the person to just put the blame on and appease the public's worries,'' Morin says.
''They put me through a microscope and they accused an innocent person for 10 years falsely.... What happened to me was wrong, and could happen even to any of you who are speaking to me right now.''
Not only in Canada, but also in the United States and Britain, the risk of wrongful conviction is real and probably much greater than most people think, say those who study such cases.
While the three democracies are global standard-bearers for civil liberties, their justice systems are still fraught with flaws that open the door to the sort of human error that produced Morin's 10-year nightmare.
What is worse, these errors in many cases are not simply flukes, defense lawyers and advocacy groups contend. Innocent people such as Morin, they say, are regularly convicted because the systems are not properly insulated from public and political pressures that cause the search for truth to turn into little more than the search for a conviction.
''In every one of the miscarriage-of-justice cases I have looked at in Canada, the US, and England, there has been suppression of evidence by police or prosecution as a matter of deliberate choice -- evidence shown later to be crucially important to these cases,'' says Alastair Logan, a British lawyer who helped exonerate eight people convicted of terrorism in the 1970s bombings by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Mr. Logan says wrongful convictions follow a common pattern that cuts across national boundaries. He sees parallels between cases in the English-language common-law systems of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Canada, the United States, and Australia.
Yet protecting due process, and thus defendants' rights, by insulating judges and police from public pressure is hardly a popular cause in many Western countries today. Just the reverse.
''The mood in many state legislatures and certainly in Congress is to broaden the powers of police and prosecutors and curtail the appeals of those claiming to have been wrongly convicted,'' says Hugo Adam Bedau, a professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. who has studied wrongful convictions in the US.
Rising fear of crime has spurred public demands for quicker justice and harsher sentencing. Dudley Sharp, political director of Justice For All, a Houston-based victims' rights group says, ''We don't find that many [innocent people in prison]. The rights of the accused far exceed the rights of the victim.... If we want a perfect system, we'll have no system.''
Wrongful Imprisonment Transcends National Borders
There is a widespread belief that miscarriages of justice are rare, random glitches whose causes cannot be easily identified or fixed. Yet Logan and others say miscarriages of justice are produced by the same causes in case after case.
Brutal crimes beget media coverage that produces intense pressure on police and prosecutors to find and convict someone. Sometimes this results in the case being built backwards. Instead of finding overwhelming evidence that points to a suspect, the pressure causes police to zero in on someone on the basis of innuendo, hunches, and gossip. Only later do police begin building a case. The temptation to discard or suppress evidence that might exonerate the one charged grows exponentially. This is what happened to Morin, lawyers say.