Crime novels are great holiday reading. So is The Injustice System. A murder in Miami and a trial gone wrong, in which Clive Stafford Smith combines a who-done-it with a Grisham-like plot of one man against the system. This book, however, is non-fiction. The dead bodies were real human beings as is the person convicted of these murders.
Stafford Smith, an attorney at law, describes the tribulations of a prisoner who was found guilty of two murders and spent 20 years on death row before the verdict was changed into a life sentence without parole. He makes a strong case in favour of his client’s innocence and against the American legal system. The author grills the defence lawyer who failed on almost all relevant counts; the prosecutors who were more interested in a conviction than in finding out what really happened, discarded exculpatory information and guided witnesses to bring their statements in line with their storyline; judges who were corruptible, were biased by their history in prosecution, or had their independent legal judgment affected by the need to get re-elected; juries that were biased into accepting that the prosecution would not arrest suspects that were innocent; and experts that made principal mistakes against logic. Most importantly, however, Stafford Smith points out that such personal failure on all levels is systemic. This is worrying.
Stafford Smith was only called to the case at a time when his client was broke, which severely limited the options to do the research needed to exonerate his client. Interestingly, at the time of his arrest, the man had been a millionaire businessman, who simply could not believe he would be found guilty and therefore hired an attorney at a fixed fee of $ 20,000, much too low to prepare for a capital trial. The fixed fee also took away the lawyers’ incentives to do some proper research in the case, which would have added costs. Elsewhere, the incentives also worked against finding out what really happened. Stafford Smith argues that the USA could save a considerable amount of money (prisons are expensive) if more money was spent in proper fact finding to prevent innocent people from ending locked up. He cites many cases where guilty verdicts had to be reversed.
The new information that Stafford Smith unearths (working pro bono) would, had it been presented at the trial, certainly have contributed to casting reasonable doubt on the guilt of the suspect. The author argues that his research has brought sufficient new information to light to justify a new trial. However, his requests have been denied at all possible levels, mostly on technical legal grounds. Stafford Smith does not hide his frustration at the course of events and I sympathise with him.
The truth, the whole truth…
In the academics world, progress is achieved by dropping old truths in the light of new evidence, or if the process to arrive at these old truths proved to be unsound. It strikes me as odd that in legal practice truth apparently is what is accepted as such at the time of the trial. It also sits uneasy with my sense of justice. As a child, I was occasionally sent to my bedroom as a penalty for misbehaviour. However, if new information showed that I was actually innocent as sometimes was the case, I was immediately released from my confinement. My parents were wise people accepting new insights and were willing to overturn their rulings. The American legal system could learn from them and academic jurists should certainly support such learning.