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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Injustice, redressible or not

North Carolinians are very disturbed to learn that the State Bureau of Investigation – for those you outside NC, that’s the centralized forensics agency that supports criminal prosecutions statewide – has been using bogus science and distorting evidence to conform to prosecutors’ preconceived theories of crimes. This news follows several recent, highly publicized exonerations of long-incarcerated but wrongfully convicted persons.

The SBI is not an independent agency; it’s accountable to the Attorney General of North Carolina. Although crimes in this state are usually prosecuted by District Attorneys in the individual counties, the SBI is inherently a partisan institution by virtue of its position in state government. If you watch the Law & Order franchise on television, you’ve seen how closely police, forensic experts, and prosecutors can work together. That’s not myth.

Leveraging the presumed integrity of the similarly named FBI, the SBI carries great weight when its agents testify in criminal trials. If the SBI is incompetent or dishonest, however, it can be very difficult if not impossible for a criminal defense lawyer to impugn such testimony. No wonder that a handful of superb criminal defense lawyers here, like Joseph Blount Chesire V, are constantly in demand!

Our nation is predicated on justice – as perfect as we can reasonably make it. It’s no surprise that justice isn’t absolutely perfect; our nation has never achieved perfection in that regard, and perhaps we never will. Nevertheless it’s a shock for many people to read the news about the SBI. For some members of the community, however, it’s no surprise at all. It merely confirms what they had been thinking all along.

Years ago I felt strongly enough about capital punishment to begin attending vigils at Central Prison in Raleigh on the nights of executions. (For those who don’t live in NC, Central Prison in downtown Raleigh is the only site of executions in this state.) I believe it’s an abomination that we execute people in the name of the state. On principle, many folks disagree with me. I understand their point of view, even if I disagree with it.

But now that we are coming to understand just how easily justice can be averted by unscrupulous prosecutors and investigators, it’s time to end capital punishment forever. It seems almost certain that the state has executed persons who are in fact innocent or whose guilt would not have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, if the trial had been fair. We cannot tolerate errors of that nature, which – unlike the recent exonerations and releases from prison – cannot be undone.