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Seek justice, not convictions (Part II)

By Scott Tibbs, May 21, 2009

The New York Times reports that many prosecutors resist requests by inmates for DNA tests. While there is a legitimate interest in not overburdening the justice system by allowing inmates to tie things up in court, I believe that this again represents a fundamental flaw in the way this society approaches the criminal justice system. Instead of seeking justice as a goal too much of law enforcement sees this as some kind of game with wins and losses, and wants to win as much as possible. This is incredibly destructive to justice itself and to our Constitution.

On principle, we always want to make sure that the correct person is punished for a crime. In addition to the inherent unfairness of punishing someone for a crime he did not commit, the guilty party does not see justice for his crimes and more innocent people will likely become victims of the real criminal if he is allowed to remain on the streets. The least important (though still significant) reason to pursue justice rather than convictions is not to waste taxpayer money by incarcerating someone who has committed no crime.

The Times reports that University of Virginia School of Law professor Brandon L. Garrett's analysis of 225 DNA exonerations found prosecutors opposed DNA testing about 20% of the time and that "the DNA test identified the real culprit" in 98 of the 225 cases. If the real culprit committed crimes after the innocent person was punished in his place, what would those 20% of prosecutors say to the victims who were vulnerable because he punished the wrong man? Morally speaking, is that prosecutor not an accessory to those additional crimes?

The most disgusting and morally bankrupt argument in the article is a concern by prosecutors that DNA testing "undermines hard-won jury verdicts." Again, the goal should be seeking justice, not a "victory" as if this is some kind of game. For example, if I were to be convicted of participating in Nazi atrocities, would that "win" mean anything? Considering I was not even born until 28 years after the end of World War II, the answer is an obvious and resounding no to anyone with any intelligence whatsoever.

As I have noted before, if you watch campaigns for elected prosecutors, you will see candidates touting how many people they have put in jail and how many convictions they have "won" as their accomplishments. Little to nothing is said, however about justice, only convictions. Obviously, we want to elect a prosecutor who is a skilled lawyer and will surround himself with skilled lawyers, so that they are able to put people away when those people commit crimes, for the good of society. But it is just as important to have a prosecutor with the discernment to know when not to prosecute and the integrity to not prosecute when it is politically unpopular.

One of the good things that has come of the criminal conspiracy by disgraced, disbarred ex-prosecutor Mike Nifong is that it raised awareness among the public that there are cases where the accused have actually committed no crime, and that law enforcement is as vulnerable to corruption as any other human being. But the prevailing popular sentiment is still to assume guilt and lock people up. It is important to educate the American people of the dangers of this attitude.

The primary goal of any prosecutor is to seek justice. Imprisoning an innocent man and letting the guilty go free by stubbornly refusing to examine things like DNA evidence is a disservice to the victim, the wrongly accused and society as a whole. It is also critical that we vigorously and aggressively defend civil liberties and due process. On September 11, 2001, a group of al Qaeda terrorists attacked this country and murdered thousands because of their hatred of freedom. When we toss aside justice, we are waving the white flag of surrender in the War on Terror.