The Revealed Meaning of Guilt

A few days ago, Gabriel Malor pointed out this story:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — A judge has dismissed charges against two men who were convicted in the death of a woman as part of a “Satanic ritual” more than 25 years ago.

This is an all-too-familiar story. Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark were convicted of murder in 1995.  But after serving 20+ years in prison, DNA testing blew up the case:

Key pieces of evidence from the 1995 trial include a single hair found on victim Rhonda Warford’s sweatpants that an expert at the time said was similar to the hair of Hardin, her former boyfriend. Former Louisville Metro Police Detective Mark Handy said Hardin told him he worshipped Satan and was interested in sacrificing people. And police found a blood-stained cloth with what they called a “chalice” in Hardin’s bedroom, which they said was evidence that he killed animals and drank their blood as part of his worship of Satan.

But since then, DNA analysis shows the hair does not belong to Hardin. The blood on the cloth was actually Hardin’s blood, not an animal. And Handy was later found to have lied under oath about a different murder case, which defense attorneys say question his credibility.

(It will not surprise followers of the American justice system that the case included a jailhouse snitch: “At trial, the state relied on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed that Clark confessed to the crime. Shortly after Hardin and Clark’s convictions, a letter surfaced revealing that the jailhouse informant attempted to solicit another inmate to fabricate testimony against Hardin and Clark to receive a reduced sentence.”)

The judge vacated the conviction, and an appellate judge upheld the ruling. Hardin and Clark were free…until prosecutors charged them with new crimes: Kidnapping and perjury. The kidnapping charge was based on evidence from the original case which they felt had not been discredited. They might sincerely believe that, for all I know. But the perjury charge is pure vindictiveness:

It also charges Clark with perjury, for testifying under oath in 2015 in a hearing on the motion for a new trial that he had never admitted any involvement in the murder when in fact he had previously testified before the Kentucky Parole Board in April 2006 that he helped move her body after her murder.

In other words, lock a man in a cage, threatening to keep him locked up if he doesn’t confess (because it worked for Moscow show trials), then when his conviction is vacated a decade later, use that coerced confession to prosecute him for perjury.

How the hell do things like this happen?

I’m not sure where and how things went wrong here, but they way the case against Hardin and Clark played out in our justice system is a reminder of something I’ve learned in years of blogging about policy issues: You can’t judge a policy by its intentions. The proper measure of a policy is how it functions in the real world. Once you understand how it really works and what it really accomplishes, you can work backwards to develop a better description of the policy, one that has the power to explain your observations of it.

Illinois law blogger Matt Haiduk does something like that in a post that looks at how “guilt” really works in our criminal justice system.

Guilt is a burden that can turn a witness into a defendant or turn the accused into an informant. Guilt is the negative attention of those in control.

Officer Lawman sees a baggy with traces of a green plant-like material on the center armrest of the rear seat in a car and tells all four occupants, “If somebody doesn’t claim this you’re all getting arrested…” Somebody–often the guy who’s already been arrested several times, even when it’s not his–always claims it.

One of them is really guilty or all four of them are “sorta” guilty, right?

Maybe the good officer shows up to that same house he’s been called to nearly every night and, well, “It’s the third trip here tonight, so somebody’s going to jail.” Who cares if they actually should? Truth doesn’t really matter. Doling out a little guilt solves the problem, at least for the time being.

Four guys go to rob and murder a rival gang member. All of them get charged, but how strong is the case when all the living witnesses are defendants (and didn’t talk to the police)?  Prosecutors decided who they really want to go after (maybe the guy with the worst record… or the guy who they think is the biggest jerk) and ease a little of that guilt burden of the guys they want for witnesses.

I think I’m pretty cynical about our criminal justice system, but Matt has spent years seeing it up close. I’ve got nothing on him:

Guilt is power. Guilt is control. Guilt is not truth or facts.

It’s sometimes created from thin air — often from the mouths of jailhouse snitches, mistaken witnesses, or others with a vested interest in a case (like an ex-spouse, or hated neighbor).

Seeing guilt as power the government exerts upon people is the only way to understand the system.

Read the whole thing.

in Legal

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