Guilty until proven innocent

Tales from death row: Justice for Rodney Reed


By: Caitlin Adams

With the most recent denial of relief in Rodney's case and the case moving into the 5th Circuit's purview, I find myself wondering again, how can innocence not matter?

Once a jury finds a person guilty, in the court's eyes you are guilty, even when you are not.  This is particularly true in capital murder, death penalty cases. If you can "prove" your innocence, which today happens almost every day with DNA testing, then in the eyes of the law and the courts you have met the burden of proof. Hundreds of innocent people have been exonerated through the tireless efforts of their legal teams because of DNA testing. If the DNA says you're innocent, you're innocent. That works as long as you are not denied the right to have potentially exculpatory evidence tested. For hundreds, maybe thousands, that right is denied them by law, by the system, by the courts. Innocent, but guilty.

What if you are innocent and there is no DNA to prove your innocence? The odds that you will be able to "prove" your innocence dwindle dramatically. Some might say it would take a miracle—fortunately, they do sometimes happen—Anthony Graves's story comes to mind. Mr. Graves's case happened to end up on the desk of a journalism professor as part of the semester's course work. As the professor and students began to examine the case as part of their investigative journalism course work, they became aware of all the many inconsistencies, errors, and made a commitment to getting to the truth.  Their tireless efforts paid off; Anthony Graves is a free man, an innocent man.  A man, who faced several execution dates, had been through the entire appeals process and denied at every stage, judged guilty for 18 years and NEVER was. I couldn't be happier for Mr. Graves, for any exoneree, and I can't help thinking about all the other innocents who are waiting and praying for their miracle.  How are they less innocent, how are their lives less important?

I find myself thinking about cases that draw international attention, have documentaries nominated for an Academy Award, are covered by national news outlets; and again I'm beyond words grateful when this leads to the righting of injustice. And then I find myself wondering, how can we as a society allow the life, the freedom of a human being to come down to luck or a miracle? How can we allow innocence to only matter some of the time? Isn't the system of justice we have designed, supposed to protect the innocent?  Just because a jury of twelve fallible human beings decides someone is guilty doesn't make it so. How is it possible that a prosecutor can "prove" someone is guilty, who is, in fact, innocent? How can you prove something that isn't? All the prosecutor can really do, in a case where a defendant is factually innocent, is convince twelve human beings that his/her version of events is the truth, when in fact, it isn’t!  That is a very particularly flawed system.  People lose their freedom and their lives at the hands of this system. How can that be acceptable? How can someone be "framed" for a crime (technically, that is what happens in wrongful convictions, whether knowingly or not) and have their innocence denied sometimes to the death?

Over 2,000 wrongful convictions have been overturned since 1987.  But once those twelve people make their decision, however well-intentioned they may have been, many innocent people's fates are sealed. They spend the rest of their lives imprisoned. They are executed.  In death penalty cases, the post-conviction appeals process is not about the human being the state is planning to murder, it's about procedural bars, evidence thresholds, procedural timelines. Even the laws designed to protect the rights of the convicted—Atkins v Virgina, Martinez v Ryan, and many others—are ignored by states with impunity.  It seems that once the system has decided, it doesn't matter if the system got it wrong; the truth doesn't matter and neither does innocence. Again, I find myself asking, how can we as a society accept this, how can we allow it?

Today I remember all wrongfully convicted people, living and dead, and I make a promise to them—NOT IN MY NAME!

Free Rodney Reed - INNOCENT - on death row!