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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

''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.

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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.''

International cases

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.

It's also what happened in New York State over a period of 23 years, according to a 1991 article entitled ''Inevitable Error: Wrongful New York State Homicide Convictions 1965-1988.''

''A substantial number of the wrongful convictions we have found in New York resulted from prosecutorial misconduct,'' writes author Marty Rosenbaum, a lawyer at the New York Defenders Association. These include ''suppression of exculpatory evidence and the conscious use of perjured testimony'' as well as police misconduct. Mr. Rosenbaum identified 59 wrongful homicide convictions in that period that were legally overturned.

While thousands of innocents languish in the prisons of dictatorial regimes in China, Burma, and other countries, no one knows how many innocents are in US, Canadian, and British prisons.

Other cases in Canada

Canadian David Milgaard, a 16-year-old when he was arrested, spent 23 years in jail for the 1969 murder of a nurse in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Canada's Supreme Court ordered his release in 1992 after reviewing new evidence unearthed by his mother's private investigations.

Before Mr. Milgaard's case, the largest stain on Canada's legal system was that of Donald Marshall Jr., a 17-year-old Micmac Indian from Nova Scotia. He was freed after serving 11 years for a 1971 murder he didn't commit.

''We only hear of a few such cases, but there are undoubtedly others,'' says former Ontario Chief Justice Gregory Evans who chaired a 1989 Royal Commission that investigated Mr. Marshall's case. ''There's no question Marshall never would have gone to trial had police and prosecutors disclosed all the evidence they had.''

In Britain, the public is demanding that courts and police be made accountable for the 18 innocents jailed in the ''terrorist'' Irish Republican Army-bombing cases of the 1970s. Their names are a painful litany to the British: Judith Ward, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six. Today there are still 700 to 800 cases of alleged wrongful convictions in the British justice system awaiting review. Many more have been unable to get their cases heard by the government. Nearly one-third of Britain's police departments were being investigated in connection with such cases, says a 1993 Royal Commission report.

In the US, a landmark 1987 study published in the Stanford Law Review identified 350 convictions since 1900 in which the accused were later shown to be innocent of ''potentially capital offenses.'' In 23 cases, the convicted person was executed.

Those findings are only ''the tip of an iceberg of very uncertain dimensions,'' says Mr. Bedau, who co-authored the review article. The 23 wrongful executions ''could be 95 percent or 10 percent of the real figure,'' he says.

Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Markman, a former US Attorney in Detroit, disagrees that many innocents are behind bars. He coauthored a 1988 Stanford Law Review article rebutting Bedau's findings. ''I'm not saying we shouldn't be concerned about errors,'' Judge Markman says. ''But the US has a criminal justice system in which there are more elaborate dueprocess entitlements ... than in any system in the world.''

Be that as it may, wrongful convictions are not nearly as rare as most people think, says the Rev. James McCloskey. His Princeton, N.J.,-based Centurion Ministries has spent the last 14 years investigating forgotten cases. So far, 15 of the 30 cases his group has reinvestigated have led to the release of innocent people.

In US courts, Mr. McCloskey says, ''most of the time they do get the right man. But it's still a far leakier system than you might think. Right now you can be sure there are thousands of people in US prisons serving time for crimes of other people.''

Morin's trial by fire

In many ways, the bizarre case of Guy Paul Morin is Canada's most blatant wrongful conviction. Morin's ordeal began in April 1985 when he was charged with the rape and murder of his next-door neighbor, a nine-year-old girl named Christine Jessop. Her body had been found four months earlier in a field about 30 miles from his house. She had been missing since Oct. 3, 1984.

Morin, a 24-year-old carpenter who lived with his parents, was also a beekeeper and a clarinet player in a local band. Perhaps because of his hobbies or other factors, the Jessops and other neighbors told police in the small town of Queensville, Ontario, that he seemed ''weird.''

Immediately thereafter, police began questioning him relentlessly. He had no criminal record. There were no murder witnesses. No murder weapon. Neither had Morin shown any more than neighborly interest in the girl.

But before long, almost everything Morin said or did seemed to police and others to confirm his guilt. One woman testified that when she spoke with him about Christine's disappearance months after later, he seemed ''uncaring.''

Other alleged signs of guilt that prosecutors presented to the jury in his two trials included the fact he did not attend Christine's funeral. And he did not take part in the search for her body.

A jury found Morin not guilty at his first trial. But under Canadian law it is not considered ''double jeopardy'' (as it would be in the US) for the prosecution to appeal for another trial. This time Morin was convicted. During Morin's trials, pages were torn from police logbooks and ''lost,'' taped interviews with witnesses disappeared along with physical evidence from the crime scene. Other evidence was simply kept from the defense.

For example, people living near the farmer's field where Christine's body was found told police they heard screams in the area at an hour when Morin was known to be at home with his parents. Those witnesses' interviews never surfaced at Morin's first trial because they were never revealed to Morin's defense team. Nor was evidence on seven other suspects.

But the linchpin to Morin's conviction was an alleged ''jail house confession.'' Two inmates testified at Morin's second trial that he had confessed his terrible crime to them while they were in jail together. The two had also made deals for leniency with prosecutors in their own cases. One would later write his parents that ''to my knowledge, Guy Paul Morin is an innocent man.''

''I haven't run across a jail house confession yet that isn't bogus,'' says McCloskey. ''They get people, no matter how unsavory, to be the star witness. The prosecution hands them a 'get out of jail free' card in exchange for their help.''

Unfortunately, higher courts frequently cannot be relied upon to reverse lower court abuses. In many cases, appeals courts are either precluded from reviewing new evidence or else political concerns stymie the process.

''In states like Texas where judges are elected,'' Bedau says, ''it's simply suicide to come out in favor of a defendant's rights or to recommend clemency because you think someone is innocent.''

A person who knows this political dimension well is Rubin Carter, executive director of the Toronto-based Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted.

Some still remember Mr. Carter as the ''hurricane,'' his nickname when he was a professional boxer pursuing the world middleweight championship. He was living in Patterson, N.J., in 1966 when he was arrested and charged with the triple murder of three white people. Carter, who is black, says police racism, suppression of evidence, and perjured testimony were to blame.

What still bothers him, however, is that 18 years of appeals within the state court system went unheeded. ''I was trapped in the state. Whatever I appealed went right up to the dastardly people who had committed this crime in the first place. They had all been promoted.''

Carter's appeal finally reached a federal district court where his conviction was reversed in November 1985. He was released from Trenton State Prison 20 years after his conviction. State officials appealed the reversal all the way to the US Supreme Court, which finally refused to hear the case, upholding Carter's win. ''Nobody even apologized,'' he says.

But for innocents in prison trying to retrace Carter's path, winning release by appealing in federal court is getting more difficult. The US Congress is considering legislation that would put strict time limits on habeas corpus (wrongful imprisonment) appeals to federal court, with as little as one year in which to present new evidence.

Crime hysteria

''America is in the tight hold of crime hysteria,'' McCloskey says. ''People are scared to death. The current battle cry of politicians and the mandate to law enforcement is 'we don't care how you do it, just stop it.' So law enforcement has a greater license to get people.''

For several years, the US Supreme Court has gradually raised the hurdle for appeals by inmates. In the landmark 1993 case of Herrera v. Collins, the high court said that while it is unconstitutional for a state to execute an innocent person, the federal courts are not necessarily obliged to consider a state inmate's petition of innocence.

Last month the high court shifted a bit in the opposite direction, ruling that a federal judge uncertain whether a constitutional error has influenced the outcome of a state court trial should assume it did and rule for the prisoner.

But the US House of Representatives last month voted to allow prosecutors wider latitude in using evidence obtained by police without a warrant. This fits the public mood.

James Lockyer, who spearheaded Morin's appeal made unnecessary by the favorable DNA test, says tougher laws should take a back seat to fixing these legal systems. ''We must try to make sure it won't happen again,'' he says. ''We need an inquiry. The people in power haven't gotten the point. True, you'll never eliminate genuine mistakes. But there's a difference between those and the travesty of Guy Paul Morin's case.''

Morin is a free man today because of genetic testing, which is increasingly being used to prove the innocence of those in prison. In Canada, the Ministry of Justice is considering whether to require a genetic DNA test from crime suspects.

Like fingerprints, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genetic material of each individual, which is often found at crime scenes in the form of blood or semen, is believed to be unique. Such testing, civil libertarians say, would be a two-edged sword.On the one hand, it could compel some individuals to provide powerful evidence of their own guilt. On the other, some innocents who might have been mistakenly charged would be eliminated from consideration.

Ed Honaker, a Virginia man who served 11 years in a state prison for a rape-kidnapping he did not commit, also has DNA testing to thank for his release last October. Mr. Honaker was released by Gov. George Allen after a test showed his DNA did not match that of the attacker, which was found on the woman.

But technical approaches like DNA are only part of the solution, advocates say. What is needed, they contend, is a broad review of why and how many innocents are imprisoned in Canada and the US.

In Britain, there is already recognition that a problem exists. Public faith in the British justice system, badly shaken by the ''terrorist'' cases, has brought broad public demands to investigate and fix the problem.

Prime Minister John Major's government has pledged to create a new independent review board to examine alleged miscarriages of justice by prosecutors and police, Logan says.

Such a board of review was formed in Massachusetts after the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case, in which two men thought innocent by many were nevertheless executed in 1927.

Bedau says that board failed because its decisions were not accepted by the courts. Indeed, acceptance by the judiciary is a problem with several proposed solutions, such as outlawing convictions based on jail-house confessions or circumstantial evidence alone.

Ontario's attorney general ruled at the end of February that an inquiry into the Morin case would be permitted, but it angered Morin's lawyers because it will not be allowed to examine the conduct of the judges at his trials.

Canadian Justice Evans and two fellow judges concluded in a 1989 report on the Marshall case that Canada's justice system needs a national independent review board to probe possible wrongful convictions.

So far, however, Canada's government has done little to implement the commission recommendations. Yet the case of Guy Paul Morin, more than most, reinforces the need for a board of review, his advocates say.

''I read Morin's record, and it wasn't long before I began to smell a very familiar stench, because all wrongful convictions smell the same way,'' says Carter, the former boxer. ''I still remember the day I visited Guy Paul in prison in 1992. And I knew when I walked out that there was an innocent man I was leaving behind.''

*The Monitor will publish additional articles on 'unjust punishment' on an occasional basis.

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