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Dennis Challeen: Our judicial system far from perfect

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When I was a child we had a relative who was a nurse in a Twin Cities hospital. When she needed an operation she went to a different hospital, and when asked why she didn’t trust her hospital, she said,” I work there, that’s why!”

People who believe in the death penalty seem to conclude that, with our trial safeguards and exhaustive appeal system, there should be no doubt about guilt. My response is similar to that of my nurse relative: “I worked there for over four decades, and I wouldn’t trust it with my life.”

Our American justice system is one of the best in the world — but it’s far from perfect and has many defects that must be addressed, particularly when it comes to the death penalty and life in prison cases.

The National Registry of Exonerations reports that since 1989 there were “1,290 cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime, based upon new evidence of innocence.”

The recent development of DNA analysis has had a major impact. Since 1992 there have been nationally 312 people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence that proved the convicted person could not have committed the crime; 18 were on death row; another 16 were charged with capital crimes but not sentenced to death.

Close to home, a Bluff Siding, Wis., man spent seven years in prison before being released as wrongfully convicted, pursuant to DNA evidence. But only 5 to 10 percent of cases involve DNA (human cells left at the crime scene) — 90 to 95 percent do not involve DNA.

In the past 40 years, 143 people have been removed from death row for various reasons. The number of US. criminals exonerated in 2013 climbed to a record high of 87.

What most people don’t realize is that once a person has been convicted by a jury, the only issue before the appellate court is whether the defendant received a fair and impartial trial — whether mistakes were made by the judge or lawyers — a very difficult burden for a convicted person to overcome within a system that sits in judgment of itself.

The nonprofit Innocence Project has examined thousands of cases across our country and has made some startling conclusions:

A major problem is that “facts” presented to juries during trial are not always reliable.

Eyewitness testimony is always suspect. How many times have you had a person begin talking to you, thinking you were someone else, or you have made the same embarrassing mistake? And these errors occur with persons we think we know, not complete strangers.

Then there are false confessions or admissions. It’s hard to understand how anyone would admit to a crime he didn’t commit. However, there are people who are mentally impaired, don’t understand the serious situation they are in, or feel threatened and think they will be allowed to go home if they agree with authorities. Proof that false confessions happen: 29 of the DNA exonerated cases had pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit and served an average of 13.6 years in prison.

Scientific evidence is often believed far beyond its reliability. Often so-called paid-for experts in their field will testify and arrive at opposite conclusions, leaving the jury wondering which expert to believe. Experts cost money that the government can easily afford but is often beyond the means of the accused, or the public defender’s budget.

Then there is bad lawyering that fails to pursue or investigate favorable evidence, or prosecutors and police who hide or ignore evidence that doesn’t agree with their theory of guilt. Sometimes it’s negligence or a simple honest mistake — but sometimes it may be intentional. Are these behaviors common? No, but they happen — and when they do, grave injustice results.

Sometimes witnesses try to please one side or another by filling gaps in their memory, or have personal incentives to exaggerate or lie. Relying on jailhouse tips, snitches and paid informants is always risky.

To quote the reform-minded Innocence Project: “Being put to death for crimes that they did not commit should be intolerable for every American, regardless of race, sex, origin or creed.”

Support for the death penalty has declined in recent years. In 1994, 80 percent of Americans polled favored the death penalty; that number dropped to 60 percent in 2013.

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, after supporting capital punishment for 20 years, gave up and concluded it was an experiment that has failed and said, “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Unfortunately, too many states and courts still “tinker” with it — sometimes killing innocent people.

Dennis Challeen is a retired Minnesota judge and lives in Winona County.

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