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Seek justice, not convictions

By Scott Tibbs, February 13, 2009

Before the War on Terror made politicians afraid of being labeled "soft on terror," the label politicians wanted to avoid most was "soft on crime." Concerns about criminals being set free on "technicalities" in the 1960's and 1970's brought forth a backlash. This backlash was reflected in pop culture in movies such as the "Death Wish" series, where the main character (a bleeding-heart liberal) sees the "error" of his ways and becomes a serial killer when his wife and daughter are savagely attacked and murdered.

Obviously, we should be tough on crime. We need to have measures in place to protect society from those who would harm innocents. Our law enforcement system is obligated to keep criminals off the streets and away from potential victims. When crime does happen, we should severely punish those who commit the worst crimes, especially murder and rape. I am a firm believer in capital punishment.

However, too often "tough on crime" has been accompanied by "tough on civil liberties" and not nearly enough concern over whether justice was actually done. Enter the tragic case of Timothy Cole, who was convicted of rape and sent to prison for 25 years for a 1985 assault that DNA evidence proves he did not commit. While Cole has been exonerated, it is too little, too late: he died in prison in 1999. He could have gotten a much less severe punishment had he lied and said he was guilty, but he refused.

One of the problems is that we as a society have become far too focused on convictions and that has blinded us to whether justice has truly been served. Look at political campaigns for offices such as prosecutor, where candidates often talk about conviction rates. But should the main qualification for prosecutor be how many people he can put behind bars, or should the qualification be that justice is done? Obviously, the answer is the latter. Choosing not to prosecute some cases may be politically risky, but could prevent innocent people from being victimized by the criminal justice system.

Three years ago, disgraced, disbarred ex-prosecutor Mike Nifong attempted to railroad members of the Duke University lacrosse team that he knew were not guilty of raping Crystal Gail Mangum. Were it not for the efforts of journalists like Wendy McElroy to expose the truth, these men might be behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Fortunately, the Duke lacrosse case did not have the tragic ending that the Cole case did. But was that a result of a pursuit of justice, or because Nifong's victims had the financial resources to defend themselves against his malicious prosecution?

What happened to Timothy Cole was absolutely inexcusable. If DNA evidence can clear him now, it could have cleared him 20 years ago. The man who actually committed the crime, Jerry Johnson, had been writing court officials for years trying to confess to the crime and free an innocent man. Cole's brother said he was the sacrificial lamb, and in many ways that is true. He was the black man who was convicted of raping a white woman, and he was to be brought down. That Cole actually committed no crime was no impediment to spending the last decade of his life behind bars.

The reason we have protections for civil liberties, due process, and rules of evidence is not to allow violent criminals to slip out of the law's grasp on "technicalities." The reason these protections exist is to prevent just this kind of tragedy from taking place. The goal is not to coddle criminals, the goal is to protect the innocent and restrain a government that will always be prone to corruption (or something as simple as sloppiness and incompetence) as long as it is composed of fallible human beings. Protecting the innocent is a critical component of true justice.