One of the things I’ve learned as a defense lawyer is that innocent people are accused of crimes. This goes against conventional wisdom. It also contradicts the prosecutors who say that anyone accused of a crime is guilty.
But the criminal justice system is more complex than many of us would like to think. We often hear of evil people who are menaces to society. Yes, there are menaces who do evil acts. But these are not the dominant element of the jails and criminal courts. Many criminal defendants are incapacitated by economic circumstances or mental health issues.
And there are defendants who have not committed the crimes they are accused of. We may debate how large a number they make, but the fact remains that they appear far too frequently.
When a person is found at the scene of the crime a moment after the crime occurred, for example, that is circumstantial evidence. The old saying goes that people have been hung on circumstantial evidence. Yet such evidence is by nature ambiguous, and stronger contrary evidence may later be found. DNA evidence has, in recent years, exonerated people who have spent years, even decades, in jail for crimes they had been convicted of. One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty is that subsequently-found evidence may later clear the convicted person of wrongdoing.
Convictions of the innocent are, of course, flaws in the system. The reasons for these are many, but it is clear that the people who make up the process, not merely the defendant but the witnesses, evidence-gathering police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and fact-finding jurors are all human and therefore vulnerable to error.
There is considerable public pressure, particularly in high-profile murder cases, for the police to make an arrest. This, many people believe, will make society safe from the criminal. Society will be purged through the punishment inflicted. But this pressure sometimes causes the police to be hasty and even sloppy in their evidence gathering.
The murder of Amanda Knox’s roommate led to such hasty police work. Amanda Knox was arrested on weak circumstantial evidence. The police had some DNA evidence linking Knox and her boyfriend to the murder victim, but such evidence was, in itself, inconclusive. It may also have been, as an expert recently testified, contaminated.
What is especially troubling is that the prosecution was given strong evidence linking the murder to another suspect. Yet the prosecutor ignored this, and persisted in prosecuting Ms. Knox. The prosecution even made up a theory, with nothing to support it, that the murder was the result of a sex game gone sour.
On such flimsy evidence, the defendant was convicted. The prosecutor responded to criticism with intimidation. When Amanda Knox complained of her treatment by the police, the prosecutor had her indicted for libel. When Ms. Knox’s parents criticized the prosecutor, they also were indicted for libel.
Fortunately, this case has become the subject of considerable international scrutiny. The prosecution has said that Americans have no business criticizing the Italian legal system, but even inItalya number of people have come to believe that Ms. Knox was railroaded. New testimony has been given favorable to this defendant. While it is impossible to predict any outcome in the law, she may be acquitted on appeal.
Nevertheless, Ms. Knox has been in jail since 2007. She has had to endure humiliation, confinement and the law’s threatened penalties. Longer and harder looks need to be taken in her case and others at what evidence there actually is.