by: David Harris-Gershon on November 9th, 2013 | 4 Comments »
Allow me to begin with a personal anecdote: I’m not a religious man. However, I do teach Jewish texts to middle school students, and this week we happened to critically analyze the 10 Commandments. These students, who understand that significant portions of America’s legal code are influenced by Judeo-Christian ethical principles, were particularly enamored by one of the commandments:
Don’t bear false witness (in a court of law) against your neighbor.
לֹא תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר
Why, they asked, is this so important? How does this have the stature of, say, don’t murder or don’t steal?
The collective answer to which we arrived: because falsely bringing evidence, or withholding evidence, against someone in a trial that leads to his or her conviction is akin to stealing and murder. In essence, their life is being taken from them, the years stolen, their potential killed.
Given the severity of such an action, it has always been unconscionable that in this country, those judges and prosecutors who have willingly participated in the wrongful conviction of innocent Americans have rarely been punished, and have never been jailed, for their actions.
Yesterday, for the first time, that changed:
Today in Texas, former prosecutor and judge Ken Anderson pled guilty to intentionally failing to disclose evidence in a case that sent an innocent man, Michael Morton, to prison for the murder of his wife. When trying the case as a prosecutor, Anderson possessed evidence that may have cleared Morton, including statements from the crime’s only eyewitness that Morton wasn’t the culprit. Anderson sat on this evidence, and then watched Morton get convicted. While Morton remained in prison for the next 25 years, Anderson’s career flourished, and he eventually became a judge.
In today’s deal, Anderson pled to criminal contempt, and will have to give up his law license, perform 500 hours of community service, and spend 10 days in jail. Anderson had already resigned in September from his position on the Texas bench.
Now, outrage is warranted when you consider that a man who was party to the wrongful conviction and 25-year incarceration of an innocent man will receive only 10 days in jail.
However, this moment is historic in that a judge and former prosecutor is actually being punished in a meaningful way, having to give up his career for his misconduct. Though, to be sure, a significant jail sentence, rather than a symbolic one, would reveal a truer form of justice.
While this moment is historic, that fact is itself a part of the tragedy of the justice system in America. For as Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project, wrote:
Rogue cops and prosecutors going unpunished is the rule rather than the exception. In Illinois, two police officers whose improperly grueling interrogation techniques led to the wrongful conviction of Juan Rivera and others were not penalized when their 3rd degree tactics came to light. Rather, they were recently hired at taxpayer expense to teach interrogation courses to other police officers around the state.
A recent study found prosecutorial misconduct in nearly one-quarter of all capital cases in Arizona. Only two of those prosecutors have been reprimanded or punished.
In order for such misconduct to be curbed, meaningful punishments for such gross criminal actions will need to become the rule, rather than the exception.
For as my students now understand, stealing someone’s innocence, and years of their life, is just about the most heinous crime possible to commit.
It’s about time we treat it as such.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, now out from Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter@David_EHG.