Sunday, April 8, 2012

There are sometimes waves of similar types of criminal cases. Like in the 80s when there was a spate of child sex cases against day care workers. And the most famous of those turned out to be completely bogus cases where well-meaning zealots, be they police or parents or social workers, wound up ruining the lives of an awful lot of innocent people. It took a while for the fervor that sprang up to die back down and for ration and reason to take over again. (Seriously, if you are presenting testimony in court that seemingly nice, normal day care operators had a secret room where they did all sorts of awful things to kids, some of which involved a clown, but you find no physical evidence to support these fantastical tales, don't you have to realize these stories are probably not true?)

There was the string of convictions based on the ridiculous "lead bullet analysis" from the FBI. That has to be one of the most shameful stains on that agency ever. Claiming that they could analyze the lead in a bullet fragment and compare it to the lead in a box of bullets connected to the suspect and determine that the bullets came from the same source? Honestly, on the face of it, it sounds so ludicrous I still don't understand how so many prosecutors, so-called "experts," and juries fell for it. Mercifully, the science finally caught up with that nonsense and put an end to this sham claim.

Shaken baby cases are another category of cases that seemed to spring up in a large clump. It's easy enough to understand where the idea of shaken baby syndrome comes from. Obviously, there are severely injured or dead children. And obviously those serious injuries and deaths need to be investigated. And the natural human instinct is to assign blame. When infants suffer such severe injuries, it's hard to imagine that the injuries weren't the result of an accident but were caused by the intentional, or at least reckless, acts of an adult. And there are undeniably children who are abused. Some of the shaken baby cases are undoubtedly legitimate convictions. But the cases got ahead of the science, as can so easily happen. And we are now coming to realize that a lot of the injuries doctors had previously assured us could ONLY be caused by intentional shaking could actually have occurred accidentally, with much less force than was originally thought possible.

So I hope that we might see more stories like this one out of California. Of course it would be better if convictions like this grandmother's had never happened, but it's good that Gov. Brown was willing to address the mistake when courts were willing to wrangle back and forth for years about whether the interest in finality of cases outweigh the interest in not letting innocent people remain in prison. Right now, I am choosing to focus on the happy ending to this story rather than dwelling on the frustration I feel toward the US Supreme Court who seemed content to let a conviction stand even when they had grave doubts about the defendant's guilt.

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