Monday, September 04, 2006

False Witnesses & Self-Incrimination

The Washington Post recently reported that a jury in Prince George's County Maryland awarded $6.38 million to a man who had been grilled by homicide detectives for 48 straight hours.

During the "marathon interrogation in which he wasn't allowed to sleep," Keith Longtin confessed to killing his wife; only one problem, DNA later proved a serial rapist had done the killing.

Police had no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence against Longtin.

Detectives charged him based on statements he allegedly made during interrogations that occurred over a span of more than 38 hours. According to detectives' logs, Longtin slept 55 minutes during that time.

Detectives took turns questioning Longtin, who, aside from brief bathroom breaks, remained inside a small interrogation room. Eventually, detectives alleged, Longtin said he picked up a knife and chased Zinetti after arguing with her.

In another miscarriage of justice, two and a half months ago a man walked out of Roanoke City Jail. A confessed murderer had recanted his previous testimony against Maverick Thomas and his co-defendant, Nation of Islam minister Malvester Dixon.

Both men had faced capital murder charges in the slaying of Thomas' wife, Lisa Nicole, based exclusively on the eyewitness testimony of the self-admitted triggerman in her murder.

Billy Ray Manns says he lied to the court because Martinsville Commonwealth Attorney Joan Ziglar had promised him a plea agreement. Finger the two men in a murder-for-hire scheme and he would only serve one year of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder.

After the star witness testified that he'd made the whole thing up and two judges ordered a retrial, Ziglar agreed to drop all charges against the two innocent men.

We applaud Ziglar for dropping the case against them; many mulish prosecutors refuse to give up the fight long after it's clear they prosecuted the wrong person; too much ego and little incentive to pitch the charges.

The career of investigating officers and prosecuting attorneys rise and fall at the rate of convictions; and a few murder convictions only add to the fable. Many an able and ambitious prosecutor has been richly rewarded when seeking public office due to his or her prowess in seeking and winning capital murder cases; the overriding incentive is to win -- often at the cost of justice.

In the commonwealth, jurors often do not know when a trial's star witness has been promised a deal under the table against pending charges. The promise is not explicit, for prosecuting attorneys fear such testimony would then be impeached by the very terms of that agreement.

Secret plea agreements take place all the time; some states such as North Carolina require prosecutors to give all evidence to defense counsel; full discovery under the law. Unfortunately, Virginia makes no such exigency on the prosecution.

Indeed, the criminal justice system is often maintained by threats and coercion; a witness testifies by guile or brute force; instead of allowing the facts to guide their investigation, some detectives and prosecuting attorneys shape the facts to fit a particular suspect.

Evidence from the two cases above reveals that marathon inquisitions and the lethal prospect of pending charges often result in false witnesses -- even false self-incrimination. The criminal justice system is not foolproof and never will be as long as mere mortal men run the institution.

Without absolute certainty, the ultimate punishment should be discarded. Truth may take years, sometimes a lifetime to unearth. Advances in forensic science during the last decade or so have saved upteen prisoners from Death Row and long-term prison sentences.

Societies should not impose a death sentence for any crime -- if for no other reason than the inaccessible absolute certitude of guilt; death is irreversible. Sweetheart plea agreements corrupt our criminal justice system; and DNA has proven time and again that our criminal justice system drips with heartbreaking stains of fallibility.

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