Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I bet you have a bridge to sell me, too.

North Carolina has a bit of a problem with its state crime lab. Turns out that crime lab had a couple of analysts who were lacking in the integrity department. They overstated blood evidence, falsely reported it, or just flat omitted it. In dozens of cases. Two FBI agents trying to unravel the mess identified 230 cases possibly affected,  including 3 in which executions have already happened. 165 of those cases resulted in convictions.

The Attorney General of North Carolina appeared to take the problem seriously and asked for someone to take a new look at those convictions. How nice to see the state's highest prosecutor taking a serious look at cases that raise valid concerns that defendants were wrongly convicted. It's a sign of integrity, of truly living up to the prosecutorial ideal of seeking justice, not just convictions. Maybe we have found the next Craig Watkins, the Dallas County District Attorney who has led the most impressive wrongful conviction review in the nation. I'm sure the AG of NC has found a respectable, impartial individual or group to review these 165 convictions.

Or not.

Attorney General Roy Cooper asked the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys to review the cases. He could have asked retired judges to do the review. Or out-of-state attorneys. Or put together a commission representing a cross-section of the criminal justice system, including a few prosecutors, a retired judge, and *gasp* even a defense attorney or two. Heck, he could even have farmed out the cases to district attorneys around the state, making sure that none were reviewing cases they had been personally involved in. But, no, he asked the prosecutors' professional association to do it. Yep. I'm sure they were entirely impartial and not at all predisposed to find all those convictions were sound. I'm sure a professional association of prosecutors wouldn't be inclined at all to circle the wagons and find their colleagues only ever convicted the right guys.

To be fair, though, they only found 147 of those convictions to be valid. They couldn't find the case files of the other 18. But those 147 that they could find all had "overwhelming" evidence of guilt. Every single one of them.

Forgive me if I don't find that reassurance terribly reassuring. I suspect the state's defense bar won't, either. It's just a little too convenient, unbelievably convenient, that of 147 convictions involving false or overstated blood evidence, not one single jury trial result would have been different without the problematic evidence. Having a little experience in what kind of evidence routinely comes in at trials and what prosecutors consider "overwhelming" evidence, I reject out of hand the claim that every single one of those 147 cases had overwhelming evidence even without the tainted evidence. It's just not possible. Would anyone take the Innocence Project at its word if they had conducted the review and found that all 147 convictions needed to be overturned? Of course not.

Surely AG Cooper and the Conference of District Attorneys don't really think they can sweep this mess under the rug like this.


Matt Brown said...

I suspect the people have already bought the bridge. Ain't nothing a good sweeping can't get under a big enough rug...

Jeff Gamso said...

I'm with Matt. Maybe if, say, the Governor said he didn't believe 147 out of 147 were not just righteous but overwhelmingly righteous, someone might pay attention.

But do they think they can sweep it under the rug? Absolutely. And they're probably right.

S said...

Come on, guys. I manage to write one semi-hopeful sentence on a day when optimism has felt awfully hard to come by and you've got to dash all my hopes? Within about an hour of me posting? ;)

I do know that my sister, a North Carolinian, isn't fooled. And based on the comments on that article, there are others like her. I just have to believe that the defense bar won't let this be the end of it.

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