The problem with the justice system is that its name is inaccurate. For centuries, many innocent individuals have been locked behind the bars of prison cells for crimes they didn’t commit. American prosecutors are so fixated on solving crimes and keeping the streets safe that it is no longer relevant if those who serve time are actually guilty. Prosecutors must be held accountable.
Recently, Netflix released a four-episode series by Ava DuVernay, When They See Us. It shares the stories of the men known as the “Central Park Five” and surrounds an event that took place in April 1989. A white female jogger, Trisha Meili, was raped in Central Park and five teenagers—Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—were arrested and convicted for the attack.
The five boys, who are black or Hispanic, pled not guilty. At the time, they were between the ages of 14 and 16 and there was no evidence linking them to the case. The American justice system cost each of them 7 to 12 years in prison.
For more than a decade, the nation felt comfortable with these boys being punished. One of the boys, Korey Wise, was tried as an adult at the age of 16 and spent 12 years in various prisons, including time in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. In 2002, the man who raped Meili, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime. The five men were exonerated.
“The system broke a lot of things that can’t be fixed,” Antron McCray, 45, said in an interview with Oprah on Netflix.
The stories of these men are not isolated or unique. According to Prison Fellowship, “Since 1989, the United States has used DNA testing to exonerate 225 innocent people after they have spent years in captivity,” which is likely only a fraction of those wrongfully convicted.
Many prosecutors in the nation focus their attention on increasing their conviction rates to create a successful image for themselves, which often leads to wrongful convictions.
According to the Innocence Project, in April 1999, Stanley Mozee and Dennis Allen, who are both people of color, were found guilty of the murder of Reverend Jesse Borns Jr., and were sentenced to life in prison. Eventually, the case was re-investigated and “ultimately turned up substantial additional evidence proving the two men’s innocence. Much of that evidence was in the trial prosecutor’s own files, but was hidden from the defense until the district attorney’s office adopted an ‘open file’ policy years after Mozee and Allen’s trials,” the Innocence Project says.
There was no evidence linking either man to the case. The American justice system cost each of them 15 years in prison.
Despite policies dictating that prosecutors must reveal evidence that could help defendants, many prosecutors fail to do so, often due to racial bias or blind ambition. As a result, innocent people have their lives stolen from them while the real culprits remain free.
We live in a nation where innocent people are locked away while the guilty walk free. We live in a nation where prosecutorial misconduct takes place constantly and is ignored. We live in a nation where our biased justice system fails the people.
While it may never be fixed, it can slowly be mended. State bar organizations throughout the nation are responsible for investigating claims of wrongful conviction and disciplining prosecutors who commit misconduct. However, most misconduct is ignored.
According to Jeff Adachi and Peter Calloway from The Appeal, “One study found that in California, from 1997 to 2009, there were 707 instances where a judge found that a prosecutor committed misconduct. Only six of those—less than 1 percent—resulted in a public sanction by the state bar.” Misconduct claims must be taken seriously and investigated. The state bar organizations in the U.S. must do their job.
Lives are at stake.