Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Actual Innocence" is NOT Grounds For a New Trial

My summer reading included a couple of books that I was considering for use in class.  The first was John’s Grisham’s, The Innocent Man. Grisham’s only non-fiction work is a legal horror story.  To say that the two accused defendants in this 1980’s murder were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death is a woefully inadequate summary. The defendants were convicted by juries on the basis of what could be generously described as zero evidence.  Any evidence that did exist was contradictory and speculative. Yet, juries in rural Oklahoma apparently subscribe to the theory that if the police arrested  these guys, they must be guilty. The defendants were eventually exonerated by DNA evidence after intervention by The Innocence Project.  The book was an easy read, but I was worried about students dismissing the story as dated.  Too often, students respond to anecdotal stories about the legal system with the comment, “Well, that wouldn’t happen today,” or “Today, there is always DNA evidence that is conclusive,” or some similar comment.
A more promising resource was presented by the book, Human Sacrifice by James P. Moore.  The book chronicles the conviction and sentencing to life in prison (Maine does not have the death penalty) of Dennis Dechaine for the murder of a twelve year old girl in the rural mid-coast community of Bowdoin, Maine. The evidence, entirely circumstantial, was somewhat more convincing than the miserably non-credible case put together in the Oklahoma examples.  However, the book chronicles well a syndrome in law enforcement that can represent a crucial flaw in a system that needs to seek truth.  If law enforcement officials are not careful to remain objective, then there may come a point in the investigation where police cease to look for clues pointing to truth and instead proceed to gather evidence to prove the guilt of a favored suspect. This syndrome affected the police investigation in the Oklahoma cases but is so obviously prevalent in the Dechaine case as to have fatally prevented the likelihood of the truth ever being discovered.  (I am being purposely vague on the details so as not to spoil the reader’s experience.)  The short story is that Dechaine is obviously innocent (based on the evidence as described in the book) and has spent more than 22 years in jail. 
Although not as expertly  written as The Innocent Man, I am considering Human Sacrifice as the superior pedagogical resource for two principal reasons.  The first is that it rebuts the “there is always DNA evidence” retort of today’s students.  In this case, the defense’s request for DNA testing was refused by the trial judge because it likely would have delayed the trial for a month.  So, there isn’t always DNA evidence when an inexplicable legal ruling prevents it from assisting the truth seeking process. The second consideration is that this case is ongoing and continues to produce stunning legal rulings.  The DNA tests, completed post-conviction, show that the genetic material under the victim’s fingernails do not match Dechaine. This past July, the court ruled, over the prosecution’s objections, that the DNA tests may be run against the state’s database of 20,000+ samples taken from convicts. But the most provocative ruling was handed down just two weeks ago.  PARTIAL SPOILER ALERT: The book’s premise is that the most compelling evidence of Dechaine’s innocence is the scientific evidence surrounding the time of the victim’s death. However, the Brunswick Times Record reports that the court has determined that witnesses possessing this information may not testify to that effect. In Maine, as is the case in many other states, actual innocence is not grounds for a new trial. This is a concept that students can ponder deeply and discuss enthusiastically.  If the legal process is a “search for truth,” then this statement makes absolutely no sense. Therefore, the conclusion may be drawn, that the legal process is something less than a search for truth.  Justice is apparently a goal less desired than dispute resolution – even when lives are at stake.

Dennis Dechaine (1988)

Dennis Dechaine (2011):

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