We like to think that the American justice system is firing on all cylinders. And if you listen to the politicians, that’s what you’ll hear. Justice has never been better served than in 2016, they say. But take a look under the surface and you’ll find a whole host of problems. We’re not living in a legal utopia. We’re living in something very different indeed.
Bad justice isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s something that we’ve had to deal with for a long time. There are a couple of significant errors that courts make. The first type of error is when a person who is not guilty is convicted anyway. This is the one that we think of most often when we think about how the justice system is not serving people. The other type of error is when a person who did commit a crime isn’t found guilty. Perhaps the most famous example of this in history was the trial of OJ Simpson. Many people believed OJ was guilty, but the courts did not find him so.
Last year the Washington Post laid out the problem in all its gory detail. It revealed a host of problems with the current system and the fact that so many people are being exonerated. Take the case of Rafael Suarez. Here was a man convicted of a violent crime back in 1997. What’s so awful about Suarez’s case is that another man had already pleaded guilty to the offense. The problem was that Suarez had been at the scene of the crime when it had occurred. And that was what had put him in the dock. A couple of witnesses had seen the crime and seen that Suarez hadn’t committed it. Yet neither of these had been summoned to the trial. Suarez was put in the slammer for five years for a crime he didn’t commit.
Suarez later went to the appeals court where the initial judgment was thrown out. But by then it was too late. He’d lost custody of his kids. His wife had divorced him. And he had to use his settlement to pay court fees. Not to mention the fact that he had by that stage spent three years in jail.
Despite all this, Suarez could be considered to be lucky. In the US, there is something called the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry contains all of the recorded exonerations in the US. So far, there have been over 1,600 wrong convictions thrown out by the courts. But you can bet that there are many more undetected. Suarez had served three years of his custodial sentence before it was quashed. But the average exoneration happens after more than nine years.
What’s more, some of these exonerations involve life and death. About one in twenty-five people on death row are later found to be innocent. That’s a wrongful conviction rate of around 4 percent.
So what can Americans do to fight back? First off, pressure needs to be put on lawmakers to change the law. It’s been documented that police fabricate evidence many times. And yet the law gives them special status as witnesses in court. This needs to stop. The other thing that Americans can do is fight their convictions on appeal. Hopefully, they can find errors in the conduct of the trial and have the case thrown out.