It never ceases to amaze me how much effort prosecutors will put into convictions that should be overturned and how easily some courts will turn a blind eye to obviously flawed convictions. Sometimes they do the right thing, lose those blinders. But it seems like the cases wherein both the prosecutors and judges just don't see the likely innocence of the defendant are far more common.
Take this story from Texas. In 1988, Ben Spencer was convicted of a murder he almost certainly didn't commit, a fact a district court judge acknowledged at a hearing in 2008. The eyewitnesses couldn't have seen what they said, perhaps even believed, they saw. The jailhouse snitch recanted. The defendant had a corroborated alibi. The actual perpetrator of the crimes has been identified. Hearing all of that evidence in 2008, a district court judge declared Spencer innocent and granted him a new trial.
But the Court of Criminal Appeals has to review findings in a situation like that hearing. Shouldn't be a problem, though, as appellate courts are highly differential to the fact findings of trial courts. The trial court judge gets to see the witnesses, hear all of the evidence, and so is in a much better position to rule on credibility. In an issue that comes down to disagreeing with the trial court's fact-findings, the trial court's ruling is almost always affirmed. Almost always. After dithering for 3 years, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the trial court's findings. (Funny how standards of review never seem to count as much when they fall on the side of the defendant.)
Even more upsetting is the fact that the case is out of Dallas County, an office headed by one of the most respected District Attorneys around. At least respected by defense attorneys because he has lead one of the broadest Conviction Integrity Units as exists in any DA of County Attorney office in the nation. The Dallas County DA's office has been involved in the release of more DNA exonerees than any other prosecution office. They typically haven't fought exonerations. So it's puzzling that they won't pursue this case, that they seem unconcerned about Ben Spencer's wrongful incarceration. Or the fact that the likely killer has escaped justice (though he is in prison for life on another case).
I don't understand it. I don't understand why the appellate court would step in and preserve a conviction after a trial court has expressed such a lack of confidence in the guilty verdict. (I think declaring the guy innocent can be safely considered a lack of confidence in the guilty verdict.) I don't understand why the prosecutors wouldn't just concede the fact that the conviction is problematic, at least. I really don't understand why they don't care if they have the wrong guy because that means they don't care if they don't have the right guy. You don't have to be a bleeding heart liberal defense attorney to be bothered by the idea that the DA's office doesn't care about getting the right guy.
This is the kind of stuff that drives me to drink. Makes me wonder how I can keep being a part of a system that tolerates this kind of injustice. It's what makes me feel so disheartened, some days I don't know why I keep bothering. But I can only imagine how much more disheartening it is for the Mr. Spencers of the world. Men whose lives have been ruined beyond repair. I only wish the prosecutors and judges responsible for keeping men like Mr. Spencer in prison felt as disheartened as I did. But if they did, they would do something about it already. So they must not. Not that it would do Ben Spencer any good if the people responsible for his continued incarceration had difficulty sleeping at night. Still wouldn't get him out on the streets, the free man he deserves to be.