Jan 282008
Authors: Mary Ackerson

The capacity of DNA testing to release innocent convicts seems to have alleviated doubts about the integrity of justice in our criminal justice system, but unrightfully so.

The corruption of the U.S. criminal justice system is unmistakably apparent in the case of Timothy Masters, whom recent DNA testing has found to be innocent of the murder of Peggy Hettrick, after nine years of imprisonment.

As reported by the Coloradoan, “Masters’ bid for a new trial centered on accusations that Fort Collins police and Larimer County Prosecutors withheld evidence during his case.”

According to the New York Times, “Ms. Hettrick . was sexually mutilated with a precision that a medical consultant to the prosecution said would require a high level of surgical skill. But that expert opinion was among the potentially helpful evidence that was never given to the defense team in 1999 . no physical evidence or murder weapon were produced linking Mr. Masters to the crime.”

The irresponsibility and deception of the police and prosecutors in their search for justice led to the nine-year imprisonment of an innocent man.

Such cases show cause for drastic reform of the criminal justice system, rather than simply writing them off as “mistake[s],” as one of Masters’ original attorneys, Erik Fisher did.

He told the Coloradoan, “it’s important that the justice system works . obviously, the justice system didn’t work in this case, but at least that wrong will be rectified.”

So releasing an innocent person somehow “rectifies” nine years of unjust imprisonment? Certainly Masters and his family do not feel the same way.

By law, it is the state’s burden to establish beyond a reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused. There is something horribly wrong with a system in which the value placed on victim justice is so high that it can lead to the obstruction of truth.

Yet, the criminal justice system in the United States has been based upon such twisted values since the 1970s, when conservatism replaced liberalism as the dominant philosophy in formulating criminal justice policies.

Consequently, policies in the U.S. have been based off the crime control model of criminal justice, which is mainly concerned with protecting victims’ rights. It supports broad powers for police in order to make the process of determining guilt easier and faster, and the fact-finding of police and prosecutors is viewed as highly reliable, producing a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality.

The alternative model of due process views the defendant’s rights as most important — recognizing that, according to the Bill of Rights, an individual cannot be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Thus, police powers should be limited to prevent infringement on these rights.

The difference between the models reveals a difficult balance that must be maintained between protecting society from dangerous people and protecting innocent people from imprisonment or execution. The inevitability of human error in regulating these opposing protections does make some wrongful convictions unavoidable.

However, when those in power are not doing all they can to minimize wrongful convictions, wrongful convictions are inexcusable.

Yet, this is exactly the kind of criminal justice system that has been developed, and that the American public has turned a blind eye to.

The advent of DNA testing and its perpetual discoveries of wrong convictions only increases doubt in the American justice system.

According to a University of Virginia study, more than 90 percent of 200 exonerated people were either convicted of rape or of both rape and murder; and rape is the typical crime for which DNA can prove innocence.

For other crimes, there is often no biological evidence.

Brandon Garret, author of the study told Virginia Law, “we need to embrace changes to our criminal system to facilitate the accurate development of factual evidence at all stages of the process – not just in DNA cases, but in the vast majority of cases in which DNA testing cannot be conducted.”

These changes must be preceded by a shift in our country’s dominant political philosophy and endorsement of the crime control model. The time for justice in our country to once again be founded upon the belief in “innocent until proven guilty” is decades overdue.

Mary Ackerson is a senior political science major. Her column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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