Saturday, December 6, 2008

Let my people go!

One of my continuing complaints about the criminal justice system is how casual the judges, the departments of correction, the jails, the prosecutors, and even sometimes the defense attorneys can be about a defendant's time behind bars. Prosecutors maybe don't think about the bond implications when they charge the highest severity level crime they can possibly charge. They're not the ones who have to spend two nights in jail waiting for a Monday morning court appearance because the jail can't set a bail amount on a felony, even though the felony charge was never going to survive a probable cause hearing. Court clerks don't sweat it if they don't get around to finishing a bond screen before shutting off their computers at 4:30. They still get to go home to their families for a home-cooked dinner, unlike the poor schmuck defendant who has to wait another night. And when they do get around to doing it, there's no incentive for them to do a full investigation into the defendant's ties to the community, because if they set that bond too high on false reasons, well it doesn't affect their plans one bit. And, hey, what's one more night in jail to the guy who has already spent three nights there?

I've known of clients sitting in prison for weeks after an appellate court has overturned the conviction because even though there's no valid sentence, the department of corrections is reluctant to just release the guy without giving the county sheriff the chance to come get the guy so that county can begin re-trial proceedings. In fact, in my state, there is no communication between the appellate courts and the department of corrections so when a conviction is overturned or a sentence is vacated, no notice is sent to the people holding the defendant that they no longer have any authority to hold him. Now, as a zealous defense attorney, I take the order from the court to the DOC, but I am still shocked to realize that there is no official channel for this notification. Shouldn't both the appellate courts and DOC be a tad more concerned with making sure defendants aren't held in custody even one day longer than they should be?

This morning, I read this story. The story seems benign enough: a man, Pedro Miranda, has recently been charged with three murders from the 1980s. The slightly less prominent secondary headline reveals that a man convicted of one of those three murders, Miguel Roman, is still in prison and hasn't been granted any relief as of yet. The Innocence Project has filed a motion for new trial on his behalf, but it has not yet been ruled on. The article on msnbc does not provide any information on whether the prosecutor opposes that motion. (Gideon, you're in Connecticut. Do you know anything more about this case?)

According to the article, new DNA testing has excluded Roman, the convicted guy, as a contributor to the DNA found at the murder scene. The article implies the murder involved a sexual assault, but isn't explicit on this point. Miranda's DNA was connected to two of the three old murders he has now been charged with. Again, the article is not explicit, but the implication seems clear that Miranda's DNA matches the DNA found in the victim Roman is in prison for murdering.

The prosecutors feel strongly enough about their case against Miranda in this murder that they have charged him despite the fact that another man has already been convicted of that crime. To most criminal defense attorneys, that looks like built-in reasonable doubt, so the prosecution has to have some stellar evidence. And yet, Miguel Roman remains in prison, where he has been since June of 1988. Why? That article does not include any hint that the prosecution is going to try to claim that Roman and Miranda acted together in murdering Carmen Lopez. So if you think you can prove that Miranda did it, don't you necessarily have to concede that Roman didn't? And if he didn't, why the hell is he still incarcerated?

I think people in the system have bought into the notion that a guy like Roman has already spent 20 years in prison, so what's one more week while we straighten things out. There's no sense in rushing. But that's just wrong. It's hideously insensitive to the individual defendants who have to endure that extra week. Miguel Roman has spent 20 years in prison for a crime you have now concluded was committed by someone else. Allowing Roman to spend one extra hour behind bars is unacceptable.

Time spent behind bars is not pleasant. (Ok, that's an assumption on my part, as I've never been arrested, but I think it's a pretty fair assumption.) It's loud and brightly-lit, so proper sleep is difficult. There's no privacy, even for the most private of bodily functions. Inmates can't even wear their own clothes; they have to wear nasty jail scrubs, often in whatever size the jail folks feel like giving them. It's about as de-humanizing an experience as any person can endure. So we shouldn't be so careless about making people spent an extra night or week or month behind bars. If a guy is unjustly behind bars, there really isn't any time to waste in getting him the hell out.

I apologize for the exceedingly cheesy title of this post. It popped, unbidden, into my head and once there, would not leave.


Anonymous said...

I actually have a post on this coming up. No, I don't know anything else and no, it is odd that Roman is still in jail. Perhaps they're waiting for Miranda to be arraigned on Monday. Who knows.

Woman in Black said...

I think you should have to spend a solid month in prison before you are allowed to be a judge or prosecutor. Might remove some of the cavalier attitude.

S said...

I think I might enjoy being a guard at that jail!

Anonymous said...

The Justice System in CT reaks of improprieties. I was falsely arrested on a DV charge, the Police posted a $50K bail, the State's Attorney bumbed it up to $200K..clearly a violation of the CT Constitution for excessive fines.....CT's coffers are bust, taxing and fining its cititzens into POVERTY......CT needs a Federal invetigation into its Injustice System

S said...

Deborah, I'm sorry that happened to you. $50k bail for a DV seems grossly excessive to me, let alone $200k.

The frustrating thing throughout the country is that there are very few jurisdictions that have any provisions for comepnsating folks who are held in jail or prison wrongfully. In Wisconsin, when I was a student there, by statute a defendant could get $20 a day, which provided a nice incentive to everyone in the system to be careful.

I hope things worked out ok in the end for you, but nothing can undo the effects of what happened.

Unknown said...

Sarah, Thanks for writing about Miquel Roman. I'm very interested in this subject, the wrongful incarceration of people who are poorly compensated afterwards. It's a fascinating lacuna in the world view of the law and order types. Voices like yours on the internet may help bring about the much needed change.

S said...

Mike, the poor compensation part at the end of it all may well be the biggest tragedy of these cases, because it is easily the most preventable. We may not be able to prevent all wrongful incarcerations, but we can change the way we throw them out of prison with no financial support, no job training, etc. Most of these guys can't get work because exoneration notwithstanding, they still have 20 years in prison on their record. Even if an employer is comfortable with that history, the fact still remains that these guys have few, if any, marketable job skills. Many of them have to rely on family members to take them in, but what happens to the guys who have no family?

We simply have to do a better job of helping these guys reintegrate into society after they've been exonerated.

No word yet on when Mr. Roman will be released. I've been checking the Hartford paper.

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