By Lawrence Frazier
In America, we need judicial system reform that is focused on justice and truth. When a jury makes a decision based on what turns out to be erroneous information, or perjured testimony the system is reluctant to correct the error. Every day we see examples of people with money, power, and position afforded one form of treatment within the judicial system, while the poor and disadvantaged are treated radically different. All too many African Americans know what it is like to be accused of a crime they have not committed.
In Illinois, defense lawyers, journalists and students have helped free 14 of 288 Death Row prisoners. That is an error rate (thus far) of 4.9% in cases that receive intense scrutiny. Applied to the general inmate population, that would translate to roughly 100,000 people, or enough to fill 80 prisons. If the number of prisoners who have been released in capital cases is any indication, a significant percentage of the 2 million residents of State and Federal prisons are living a nightmare. Only because no one wants to appear soft on crime, Congress and the courts emphasize bureaucracy over justice. Our penal system is littered with innocent people who do not have the resources or the influence to overturn wrongful conviction.
Governor George Ryan of Illinois did a very courageous thing in commuting all the prisoners on Death Row sentences to life. That took a lot of courage, regardless of his reasoning. Now if a governor can see the injustice, and act on it you know it was bad. What about the cases that did not receive the publicity, the intense scrutiny, of the death penalty, but received 50, 60, 70 or hundreds of years? Perhaps for crimes they did not commit. In essence, a 60-year sentence is the death penalty for an innocent person, because it slowly kills you from the inside out. Your spirit dies first along with your hope, and thus you are subjected to a slow suffering, agonizing death. This I know! In the more complex cases, which are most of them, how does an innocent man end up behind bars you ask? Most often, it is because of mistaken or perjured eyewitness testimony, according to one study. Eyewitnesses’ played a role in three quarters of the first 67 convictions reversed by DNA evidence and in 38% of death-row exonerations, it was the only evidence presented. Other factors in false convictions include police misconduct, lab errors, coerced confessions or incompetent counsel (something that is very hard to prove). In a single year the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled three times that lawyers accused of sleeping through portions of trials had provided sufficient counsel. Something is wrong!!
Prosecutors who withhold evidence, coach alleged victims to commit perjury or otherwise break the rules, play these games because they are under tremendous pressure to win cases, not to seek the truth, and they have little to fear if they are caught fixing a case.
The Chicago Tribune analyzed 381 murder cases in which defendants had convictions overturned because of official misconduct and found that not a single prosecutor had been charged with a crime or disbarred. Only five faced discipline and the harshest punishment was a 30-day suspension. Many went on to become judged or a District Attorney. One was even elected to Congress. Bureaucracy over justice. In one notorious case, the Supreme Court refused to hear a condemned man’s compelling claim on innocence because years earlier his lawyers missed a filing deadline. In 1993, the court ruled in Herera v. Collins that a prisoner cannot simply argue in Federal Court that new evidence points to his innocence. He first must prove that his trial contained procedural errors. (The technicalities that may free the guilty, but also protect the innocent). If the Court and Judges refuse, or are reluctant to consider new evidence, who is left to correct the errors? Prosecutors are not lining up for the job. Despite an oft-cited admonition by the Supreme Court that they operate with “the two-fold aim that the guilty shall not escape nor the innocent suffer”, legislators have cut off other escape routes. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, championed by Senator Orrin Hatch passed in 1996, gives an inmate 12 months after conviction is final, to file a Writ of Habeas Corpus. Our system of justice has failed us miserably but yet no one seems to care, and we compound the problem with unjustified pride, the pride in turn has turned to arrogance. Something is very wrong! One day all this will change, as God will establish true righteousness and justice in the land. What a joy it is to know that in the fast paced, restless, insecure and bureaucratic world we live in, it will take only the wrath of God, to give us hope, comfort and perfect peace.
I write this article because I am innocent of the charges of which I have been convicted, and to compound this great miscarriage of justice, I was given an illegal and unconstitutionally illegal sentence of 60 years. This was based on official misconduct, police misconduct, perjured and false testimony, evidence tampering. The same evidence that was used to convict me is the same evidence and testimony that would free me and show my innocence, if I had the proper help, influence or money. However, without the Lord in my life I will never be free even if I am released from prison. With the Lord in my life, and God on my side this bureaucracy doesn’t stand a chance. ■
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2018 edition of Stateville Speaks.