On the Criminal Justice System

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The American criminal justice system has long been lauded as both an effective and simultaneously ineffective means of justice. While many times, those guilty of heinous crimes are ultimately tracked down and imprisoned, there have been a number of circumstances where perpetrators have eluded authorities as a result of sheer misdirection on behalf of law enforcement. Some of the most prominent cases where inadequacies of the American justice system have come to light are expounded on in the documentaries The Central Park Five, from Ken and Sarah Burns, and After Innocence, directed by Jessica Sanders. In both films, the atrocities involving the investigations, trials, and subsequent exonerations of those purported to be involved with the crimes are addressed in detail. More than simply telling a story, though, the two documentaries illustrate some of the shocking prosecutorial failures pervading the justice system in America and clearly show the need for widespread reform.

Central Park Five, a documentary from Ken Burns, details the events leading up to and following the beating and raping of investment banker Trisha Meili, which took place in April of 1989. The five accused of the crime, and later sentenced to prison, were Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray, all children who, at the time, were between fourteen and sixteen years old. The events that led to their being identified as suspects was rather remarkable in and of itself. The group of five was eventually fingered as those responsible for perpetrating the attack after having been initially taken into custody concerning other events that had transpired that night in Central Park. While the children openly admitted to having been in the area the night that Trisha Meili was beaten and raped, not only did they claim to know nothing about the attack, but they were also innocent of the other crimes that had taken place in the park as well. Specifically, the children noted how a large group of young people had taken to the park and made a concerted effort of harassing and even assaulting passersby in the area. However, not one of the Central Park Five had participated in any of the attacks, so they were especially shocked when authorities began questioning them on the beating, rape, and attempted murder of a young white woman.

When the boys were first taken to the precinct, it was on charges that they had participated in unlawful rioting and other miscellaneous illegal acts. However, when authorities began to hear reports of a young white woman, naked, and nearly beaten to death, having been found in the shrubbery alongside one of the many jogging paths in Central Park, and that a group of young black males were to blame, the questioning and interrogation tactics quickly shifted. After enduring upwards of 30 consecutive hours of questioning and psychological tactics, most of the boys, in their naiveté, began telling officials what they wanted to hear if only because they simply wanted to go home. It was this eagerness to remove simply themselves from the situation that likely led to the young mens’ demise and subsequent incarceration.

Initially, each of the young men known as the central park five were coerced into providing statements that incriminated themselves as well as others whom they knew were in the park that night, all while being told that in doing so they were relinquishing themselves of any culpability associated with the crime. However, when the trials began it was clear that detectives and prosecutors had misled the central park five, perhaps in large part from the fact that many of the boys’ families failed to elicit professional legal assistance when their children were indicted, and that their own confessions were in fact being leveraged against them on behalf of the prosecution (The Central Park Five). Only a year after the boys had been detained though, all five young men were behind bars serving the maximum sentence applicable to minors.

They were eventually released before the real perpetrator, Matias Reyes, confessed his crime to authorities after encountering one of the central park five, Korey Wise, in prison. Purportedly from the guilt of having been responsible for the imprisonment of five innocent boys, Reyes came forward in 2002 confessing to the rape and beating of Trisha Meili (The Central Park Five). Describing the events of that night in such detail with such accuracy as to entirely eliminate the possibility of his confession being false, it was immediately clear that those involved in the prosecution of the central park five have committed a grievous error. Unfortunately, by 2002 all but one of the central park five, Korey Wise, had served their time and been released from prison.

While their ultimate vindication of the attack on Trisha Meili may have felt like a victory, the fact remained that five children, as a result of psychological interrogation and other unscrupulous practices on behalf of law enforcement officials and the district attorney’s office, had been convicted of a crime they never committed and sentenced to prison for the better part of their youth. And while the defendants’ ages limited the lengths of prison sentences they could receive to between five and ten years, often times those falsely accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit can spend decades in the prison system before the truth comes out.

Another documentary, After Innocence directed by Jessica Sanders, explores some of the tragic consequences that pervaded when eyewitness testimony took precedence over DNA in the prosecution of those accused of crimes. The film delves into the cases of Dennis Maher, Scott Hornoff, Wilton Dedge, Calvin Willis, Herman Atkins, Nick Yarris, and Vincent Moto, all individuals who were wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit, some of whom served more than two decades behind bars before their release.

The film begins with a brief overview of some of the more prominent exonerations that have taken place in recent years and quickly moves into the case of Vincent Moto, a man who served more than ten years in prison for a crime that he never committed. One day while walking down the street, Vincent was approached by a man whose female acquaintance asserted that Vincent was the man who had raped her. Innocent of any such crime, Vincent acquiesced to remain there until law enforcement arrived, confident that the whole misunderstanding would soon be resolved. Unfortunately, as the woman accusing him of such crimes was relentless in her assurance that Vincent was indeed her perpetrator, the trial moved forward, and Vincent was ultimately sentenced to serve 12-24 years (After Innocence). Thankfully, after requesting a retrial based on DNA evidence from the case, Vincent was eventually exonerated of all charges, despite having already spent more than a decade in prison. Tragically, Vincent represents one of the individuals to serve the least amount of time behind bars before ultimately being exonerated.

Men like Nick Yarris and Wilton Dedge, on the other hand, represent perhaps the worst-case scenario for those convicted of crimes of which they are innocent. Having spent 23 and 22 years in prison, respectively, Nick Yarris and Wilton Dedge were robbed of more than two decades of life after misidentifications by the victims led to their convictions in 1981 and 1982, respectively. While Dedge was sentenced to life in prison, the fate of Nick Yarris was perhaps even more tragic. Yarris, who was sentenced to death row after being convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder, was to serve out is his sentence in solitary confinement. For twenty-three years, Nick Yarris lived out his life in a small, cement prison cell. Eventually, both men were exonerated as a result of DNA evidence that conclusively eliminated them as possible suspects in their respective cases. However, even after having demonstrably proven his innocence, prosecutors associated with Dedge’s conviction were reluctant to see him exonerated, and for more than three years fought him in the courts, intent on keeping such DNA evidence away from any future trial. In the end though, justice prevailed and both men were exonerated from their crimes and released back into society. However, in many instances, simply being released from prison does little in the way of rehabilitating such individuals from the traumas associated with incarceration.

While both films do a remarkable job of demonstrating the many inefficiencies of the justice system in the United States, After Innocence certainly carries more weight as an accurate depiction of the current status of the American justice system. While The Central Park Five illustrates some of the racist behaviors that pervaded society in the early 90’s, most would agree with the notion that racial equality has come a long way in the twenty-five years since the time of the central park jogger. Moreover, the legal leeway with which law enforcement conducted themselves during the central park jogger case generally wouldn’t be possible in a trial in the year 2014. From interviewing minors in the absence of their parents, to coercing confessions and manipulating children into incriminating themselves, The Central Park Five shed light on some very unscrupulous practices, but practices which simply are not as prevalent in the justice system today as they once were. Additionally, After Innocence delves into some of the more pertinent issues pertaining to exonerees, such as their future in society and the workplace. As noted in one article, even those who find employment after having been incarcerated are often terminated in the first 60 days due to poor communication skills (Weissman 524). Most often, the inability to procure stable employment is a direct result of one’s criminal record. While little can be done for those who, guilty of the crime for which they were incarcerated experience difficulties in securing stable employment, it is truly a shame that the falsely imprisoned are still asked to embark on their journey through life without having their records expunged.

Perhaps more than any other aspect of the flawed criminal justice system in the United States, the area that most necessitates reform pertains to the injustices afforded those wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. More specifically, there is a need for national legislation that not only compensates the wrongfully imprisoned for their time behind bars, but which also provides for the expunging of their records speedily, and without any additional cost to the exonerated.

While the most pertinent of issues surrounding those, who have been falsely imprisoned—their exoneration—has seen substantial progress in recent decades, assistance for such individuals in the way of integrating back into society is scarce at best. One article comments on the struggles of those previously incarcerated by noting that, short of lying to employers, even applicants with pertinent, relevant experience in the field in which they are applying have little chance of securing employment after checking the box marked “felony” (Jackson). This tragedy is compounded when one considers that applicants like Korey Wise or Wilton Dedge have to approach employers and declare themselves sexual predators, “guilty” of crimes that society considers the worst of the worse, when their records bare strikes that should never have been ascribed to them in the first place. Moreover, those who have been exonerated by the court system should not represent a financial burden to family and loved ones who take them in, feed them, and clothe them, and generally take efforts to help them become re-established in society.

Whether a wrongfully convicted individual has served 5, 10 or 20 years in a penitentiary, that person deserves, at the very least, compensation for the years behind bars that could have been spent earning wages and developing a career. It is not for society to determine whether or not such individuals would have been unemployed if they had never been convicted, so it only seems equitable that such individuals be reimbursed for years that prohibited the opportunity to earn a living. While settlements like those awarded to Juan Johnson and Shawn Drumgold who, after having been wrongfully imprisoned, each received recompense in the amount of $1.9 million per year, and $1 million per year, respectively, do not necessarily represent realistic expectations of what an average person could earn, any amount less than the mean annual income of the United States is simply unacceptable (Kanigher). Upon being released from an extended prison sentence, those who’ve been wrongfully convicted have endured sufficient suffering in the difficulties of prison life, the absence from their families, and the loss of respect and admiration of their loved ones. Anxiety over whether or not they will be financially stable until they can find a stable, consistent means of income is not a stressor they should be asked to endure.

In the end, watching After Innocence and The Central Park Five had the effect of creating an awareness of some of the tragedies that the wrongfully imprisoned are forced to endure, and ultimately pushed me towards the individual-right’s side, though I cannot say I have completely gone over the edge to that side of the camp. While I have always been something of an advocate on the public-order side, these documentaries brought to light some of the grievous injustices that the American justice system often lays at the feet of the innocent. Enduring two decades in prison after being wrongfully incarcerated is something that can only be described by those who have had to face such hardship, and these documentaries illustrated that the justice system has flaws that are simply too major to ignore any longer. Those who advocate for the public-order side often contend that those behind bars deserve to be there and should not be afforded any degree of leniency, but after learning about the outcomes of the central park five and those individuals in After Innocence, it is difficult to maintain such a firm position on incarceration. Ultimately, because it still seems that most convictions are justified, my stance on the issue has shifted slightly, though not entirely. For example, a man who, during a robbery with his acquaintances, goes to the bathroom and returns to find his accomplices raping and killing people, even if he never participated, probably still deserves to be in jail, if only because he should have known that running with a crowd like that would eventually have consequences. However, when an innocent bystander who just happens to look like the one who was doing the raping and killing is convicted for the crime that he was in no shape or form associated with, than clearly the justice system is overdue for a systematic reformation.

In essence, these documentaries illustrated that law enforcement doesn’t always catch the guilty party, but instead, sometimes resorts to unscrupulous interrogation tactics and other methods to coerce the innocent into incriminating themselves in order that law enforcement may assure the public that the guilty party has been served justice. Still, because such cases are so few and far between, it is difficult to suggest any changes that would drastically alter the justice system as such changes, in benefitting the few who may fall victim to wrongful conviction, may simultaneously provide loopholes or other avenues via which the truly guilty escape justice.

Works Cited

After Innocence. Jessica Sanders, 2005.

Jackson, Tiffany. "Formerly Incarcerated Seek Employment at Job Fair." Sacramento Observer: 1. Sep 2006. ProQuest.

Kanigher, Steve. "Time for Nevada to Enact Law on Wrongful-Conviction Compensation?" McClatchy - Tribune Business News Jul 29, 2011. ProQuest.

The Central Park Five. Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon, 2012.

Weissman, Shel. "Preparing Incarcerated Youth For Employment." Journal Of Counseling & Development 63.8 (1985): 524. Academic Search Premier.