The question will always remain as to appropriate compensation when someone is wrongly accused, wrongly convicted and/or wrongly imprisoned. In recent months numerous wrongly convicted persons in the US have been released - years later.
The US "Innocence Project" is systematically using modern forensic tests such DNA analysis to reinvestigate old convictions. For example - 2001-2011 - forty-one people have been shown to be wrongly convicted. Some of these were on Death Row.
In Australia, we have our 'infamous' case where Lindy Chamberlain was wrongly convicted of killing her infant daughter, Azaria, while the family was on a camping trip to Uluru in 1980. As well as the new evidence, DNA analysis that was not available in 1980 showed that a substance found in their car and thought by the prosecutors to be blood was, in fact, not blood.
In a 2011 well-publicised case, a Texas man has been declared innocent of a rape and robbery, the original conviction of which had put him in prison for 30 years. Cornelius Dupree Jr was just 20 when he was sentenced to 75 years in prison in 1980. Now 51, he has spent more time wrongly imprisoned than any other DNA exoneree in Texas.
The Conviction Integrity Unit thoroughly reinvestigated this case, tested the biological evidence (including DNA analysis); and based on the results, concluded Cornelius Dupree did not commit this crime said Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. Mr Dupree has since had his aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon conviction overturned at an exoneration hearing in a Dallas court. Mr Dupree was charged in 1979 with raping and robbing a 26-year-old woman and sentenced in 1980 to 75 years in prison for aggravated robbery. He was never tried on the rape charge.
Not many years back another two American such cases came to light, one who served 15 of a 17 year prison sentence when the woman came clean on her Facebook post and then another months earlier similarly came clean on social media. There was a man, now 51, who spent three decades in prison for a crime he did not commit. The reality is that the system broke down. The story is not uncommon.
Only recently Craig Coley in the US spent nearly four decades behind bars with a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. Mr Coley was freed after DNA found on Ms Wicht’s bedsheets ended up matching a different man’s. Mr Coley has since been declared factually innocent, however, the true killer has not yet been brought to justice. What does $ compensation mean in this situation? What of the jury members, the prosecuting team, the judge – all 39 years ago.
The Cold Case television programs are based on situational cases (of like); and they show the process of the painstaking effort that goes into tracking down the clues that were long missed by the attending offices of the time; as well as indicating the new techniques that can now be used.
Ours (and the US) heritage of British justice is predicated on the doctrine commonly ascribed to William Blackstone in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1769), who wrote that "the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer." Also, in his book on Evidence (1824), another British scholar, Thomas Starkie, insisted "that it is better that ninety-nine ... offenders shall escape than that one innocent man be condemned."
Clearly mistake are made. Whenever humans are involved, mistakes will sometimes be made. However, when such a situation occurs and someone is wrongly convicted the consequences are phenomenal. Consider the parents, the broken hearts and embarrassment, being unable to look friends of a life time in the eye, and of course, knowing "those whispers". If it is a young person, as in this example above, their next 30 years have been destroyed. No marriage, no children, no grand-children, no career, no place to truly call home.
The pain and loss are more acute if the innocent accused person is married, and/or has children. What more than likely follows is divorce and separation from family members. They are deprived of the joys of human communities: watching the children grow and develop, having an influence in their achievements, joining their sports and cultural experiences. It's all lost and taken from the person under false pretences.
There is of course, always the other side to any human story. The consequences are also phenomenal when a family has been subject to a crime. Victims of crime are a ‘thing today’. Imagine what that would do to the lives of all your family members that the person you were sure did it, walked away.
However, this does not detract from the injustices done to those truly innocent. Now we have new technology and better communications and records, can we go back and re-investigate the case adequately?
Thirty years later the jurors are either themselves dead, too old or have long forgotten the case. The judge is more than likely also dead or retired and not partaking of public life any more. The prosecutor whose job it was to get a conviction, who may have played every card in the book to get it, inevitably excuses him/her self that it was up to the jury. The defence lawyer is finished with the case after the conviction.
The rule of law
In a democratic society under the rule of law, there is compensation for those who have be wrongly convicted and incarcerated. The question therefore becomes that of the best justice available. To date, there are special funds available when the courts determine a monetary award. But it does not, and cannot ever, make amends for what was lost or taken away.
There has been a lot aired recently on those prosecution lawyers who become obsessed with seeing a conviction whether clear evidence is there or not. Why are they not held to account by presiding judges - prosecution overreach.
Society can put a 'reasonable' price on this compensation, which is only a token for lives ruined, and this is always up for appeal in the courts, where 'costs' could be levied against particular parties if they are proved to have been professionally negligent.
Why should a Christian be concerned about this issue? Through the Bible there is an intense emphasis upon justice being done. From the Law of Moses to the prophets justice is so important. Amos 5 verse 24
This quest for justice will continue to be at the heart of the Judea-Christian faith. As long as we live in an imperfect world there will be injustices and failures of the legal system that affect people's lives, but this only strengthens the convictions of those who want to see justice prevail in all areas of life and in society. If it were not for this, a great deal more injustice would be evident.
On Tuesday 23 July Sydney young writer Rachel Li wrote of a recent situation of all this ‘To be truly seem as God sees us” with the true story of 5 young men in America jailed falsely, The Central Park Five.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children. Dr Tronson writes a daily article for Christian Today Australia (since 2008) and in November 2016 established Christian Today New Zealand. Dr Mark Tronson’s Press Service International in 2019 was awarded the Australasian Religious Press Association’s premier award, The Gutenberg.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at