JANUARY 3, 2010
Syndicated Columnist, Author, Pastor of the Resurrection Community Church Oakland, CA
Posted: January 3, 2010 04:29 PM
The United States legal system has a long and distinguished history that derives many of its legal traditions from English law; and English law traces its roots back to the Magna Carta written in 1215.
But the jurisprudence evolutionary process over the centuries has yet to yield a perfect system, nor will it ever. The legal profession is as ripe with imperfections as any other social science.
This is hardly a revelation, but certain mistakes within our legal system can alter an individual's life forever.
In 1974, James Bain convicted was of kidnapping and raping a 9-year-old boy. He was given a life sentence.
Bain was 19 when the crime was committed; he has spent every day since his conviction behind bars in a Florida prison. But after 35 years, Bain was recently set free when DNA tests revealed he did not commit the crime.
The ease in which someone could be wrongly convicted, given our flawed system is understandable; the time that it takes to exonerate them given our technological advances is not.
Bain was convicted on what continues to be the most convincing while perhaps the most unreliable method: eyewitness testimony. A jury will often hear eyewitness testimony unaware of the factors that can compromise the accuracy of an individual's statement.
Jurors may be unaware of the factors that can interfere with eyewitness perception such as any aspects of the event in question that could obstruct an individual's memory or prejudice their perspective.
Another favored method of prosecutors to obtain convictions is the use of testimony from those already in-custody also referred as "jailhouse snitches." In theory, witnesses with special knowledge of criminal activity would enable authorities to apprehend and prosecute suspects.
Since the primary motivation often includes a deal of some sort, it increases the likelihood that an informant would fabricate testimony.
Bain's conviction was based in large part on the eye witnessed testimony of the victim. According to the Innocence Project, the organization that helped Bain win his freedom, the victim described the perpetrator and the victim's uncle said the description sounded like James Bain. The victim then viewed a photo lineup and identified Bain as the perpetrator. He would later say in a deposition that he had been asked to "pick out Jimmie Bain."
Bain sought DNA testing several times on appeal, but was denied in 2001, 2003 and 2006. The Innocence Project of Florida took on his case and obtained DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene. The results confirmed that Bain was not the perpetrator.
But DNA testing is hardly a panacea for the inherent flaws embedded within our legal system. It can only be administered in approximately 10 percent of cases. That means 90 percent of the cases are still subject to the flaws of eyewitness testimony, jailhouse snitches, along with poor legal representation as the leading factors that put innocent people behind bars.
A small consolation, but Florida is one of 27 states that compensate for wrongful convictions. At $50,000 a year per year served Bain will receive roughly $1.7 million. Hardly adequate given what Bain has endured, but certainly better than the 23 states that have yet to reach the enlightenment to pass similar legislation.
Why doesn't every state compensate wrongful convictions?
Moreover, Bain becomes the latest example as to why the death penalty must be abolished. Supporters of the capital punishment emphasize the perpetrator of the crime to justify their position, while those who oppose the death penalty place emphasis on the innocent.
In a flawed legal system, the death penalty once it is carried out simply offers no recourse for the innocent. It is impossible to support the death penalty and not overtly or covertly support an error percentage higher than zero.
Bain, who has the distinction of serving longer than anyone who has been exonerated by DNA testing, calmly stated in his first few moments of freedom, "I'm not angry."
A truly astonishing statement when you consider that Bain was incarcerated several months before Richard Nixon resigned, one year before the movie Jaws premiered, 30 years before the Red Sox would win their first World Series since 1918, and 35 years before DNA testing would free him.
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