Wrongfully Convicted? How Did We Get Here?

in Violent Crimes, on

A couple we know was expecting their first child, and they had all sorts of plans. The baby, they said, would grow up to be a doctor. They just knew it. They could feel it in their bones. This child — a boy — was destined for medicine.

But, just to be sure, they named him Ben Casey.

For the Tar Heels among us who are too young to remember, Ben Casey was the name of the lead character in a 1960s television drama. IMdB describes the show as “gritty.” Those of us who remember the show remember how handsome Ben Casey was and how wise his boss, Dr. Zorba, was.

We thought of little Ben Casey as we read an opinion piece that crossed our desk recently. The essay is about wrongful convictions, and it includes a very interesting history lesson. One of the stars of the history lesson is a guy whose parents must have known he would be a judge or who wanted to give him a little push down the judicial path: the Honorable Learned Hand.

Learned Hand, a fairly progressive judge, sat on the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals for 40 years. Without ever serving on the U.S. Supreme Court, this man’s writings influenced, even guided American jurisprudence for decades, even after his retirement in 1951.

Forward-thinking as he was, Hand was in many ways still a product of his time. He believed in the justice system, and he took a decidedly paternalistic view of things like, oh, people accused or convicted of crimes. In 1923, in a Prohibition era decision, Hand offered a little tangential observation about the justice system’s tendency to favor the accused.

America, Hand said, gave an accused criminal every opportunity, every benefit of the doubt from the time of his arrest through jury deliberations and verdict. We spend too much time and money worrying that we have got the wrong man, so to speak. “Our dangers do not lie in too little tenderness for the accused,” he wrote. “Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.”

“Get over it” was the message, and it was heard loud and clear.

Tell that, however, to the men who have been freed after submitting new evidence to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.

We’ll continue this in our next post.