Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Poor justice for the innocent

Living a Life Sentence
Kelly Cobiella
CBS Sunday Morning
April 19, 2009

Anything can happen to anyone at anytime and good things do not always happen to good people. One of the worst nightmares that can happen in a person’s life is to be falsely imprisoned and, even worse, executed. But this recurring nightmare has been experienced by thousands of people through the years. Some spend the remainder of their lives in prison, never returning to the life they once knew. Thanks to the breakthrough of DNA evidence, many have been fortunate to be exonerated of rape and murder charges after years and even decades behind bars. Others are freed as a result of determined sleuth work on the part of supporters or loved ones, people recanting original testimonies, suppressed evidence being revealed, or the surfacing of new evidence. Whatever the circumstances of their release, all of the newly freed face the same challenges of reintegrating into society.

After the initial elation of finally achieving the dream of freedom, reality is a real slap in the face for the newly exonerated. While decades passed, society moved on, technology advanced, and life slipped away. Homes were lost, careers destroyed, families broken up, insurance coverage stripped away, and children grew up. Release brings a new beginning for the wrongfully accused, with a prison record on their resumes. Many were imprisoned based on little or no evidence. In some cases, evidence was suppressed by police or prosecutors, physical evidence planted by police, other evidence manufactured by forensic scientists, and lying witnesses knowingly placed on the stand by prosecutors, all for the purpose of getting a conviction, whether to advance a career or for political or other reasons.

Beverly Monroe was 55, with a successful career as a chemist, when she was convicted of murdering her companion, Roger de la Burde, in 1992, even though police thought it was a likely suicide. There was no other evidence against Beverly but the prosecutor withheld this crucial information during her trial. Beverly’s daughter, Kate, was just starting her career as a lawyer and she quit her job to devote the next six years to freeing her mother, which she was able to do in 1999 based on the suppressed evidence. Beverly is now 62 and trying to piece her life together. Although potential employers have been sympathetic to her story, her prison record remains, and she has only been able to find a job as an administrative assistant with no benefits, a stark contrast to the success she had enjoyed before her conviction.

Following her mother’s release from prison, Kate Monroe moved to Utah to work as executive director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project, which has worked to pass a compensation law to aid the wrongfully convicted upon their release from prison. The law, which was passed in 2008, awards about $35,000 for each year of false imprisonment up to 15 years, and expunges the person’s criminal record. Only 25 states have such a program. Virginia, where Beverly Monroe lives, is not one of them. Another group called the Innocence Project has helped free 235 people with DNA evidence; 17 of them were on death row. The Innocence Project also works to reform the criminal justice system in order to prevent recurrences of such stories, many of which are far worse than Beverly Monroe's.

It’s true that mistakes can happen. But it’s hard to imagine the sheer powerlessness and devastating bitterness one must feel at the hands of someone who deliberately steals your life from you for personal gain. We never hear the names of the prosecutors or police officers who tamper with evidence or suppress information. There must be a law that is protecting them. We need laws that provide accountability for such misconduct. Or maybe we have them but the victims simply don’t have the fight left in them or the resources to engage in another battle. Or maybe they’re just grateful to be free. It seems that there is a conspiracy of silence regarding this issue. It is fair that victims of the justice system should be compensated and their records expunged in the case of wrongful incarceration. State governments should all adopt laws similar to the one passed in Utah and I further propose that resources should be allocated to psychological counseling and job counseling, as well as job placement and other services to ease the transition from prison to society. It wouldn’t give back the lost years but it would help to make the remaining ones better.

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