I have been listening to a weekly podcast called “Serial” since its unveiling. The show is structured in a format where a long story is told piece by piece over a series of weeks kind of like a TV show might be or how I imagine an old radio drama would have been. This podcast has been on for 10 weeks now. The topic of this podcast is a murder trial that took place in the mid 90’s and the conviction of a defendant who at the time was in his teens. If this piques your interest go check it out. I will not get into the details of the story here.
I don’t know if the defendant was innocent or guilty and to me that is not the most interesting part. If the police arrested and the court convicted guilty man then I guess that is good. But what interests me is the theme of the investigation, which is the police work and trial that took place. It is a constant reminder to me of the flaws in our system. It is a good system but it is inherently flawed and open to manipulation and exploitation. In this podcast many questions are brought up and discussed. It seems hard to believe that this many things could be left open ended in a case and that so much evidence one thinks exists in a case was not present in this case.
This story reminds me of other stories I have heard or read about. The book “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham details the wrongful conviction of a man for murder who is sent to death row. This book show in disturbing detail the strange twists and turns an investigation and trial can take leading to an innocent man being sent to death row.
In a recent story a man in Texas is scheduled to be executed after being sentenced to death during a trial where he called Jesus and JFK to the stand. In this story the guilt of the man is not in question but the penalty is and the conduct of the court is. A man that is clearly mentally ill is allowed to represent himself and then sentenced to death despite the fact that it is illegal to execute someone who is insane.
When I hear of these strange occurrences in our criminal justice system It creates significant cognitive dissonance for me. It just does not commute. Growing up I learned how our justice system works and it seemed fool proof. Police investigate and arrest the guilty party based on evidence, the lawyers try the case with the facts weighed against reasonable doubt, and then the jury makes the decision based on the evidence. How could it go wrong? Apparently very, very easily and in so many little ways that all compound each other to make potential fiascoes like the few I’ve mentioned as well as I am sure countless others I am not even aware of.
I think part of the problem with accepting the faults in our system is that for the most part unless you work in the system or experience the system first hand most people are truly ignorant of how it works other than the cursory education we receive on the subject probably in elementary school. Then we grow up watching television shows about police and lawyers and courtrooms. In these TV shows everyone is honest and competent and respectful of the law. Justice is served. These are the ideas that permeate us as we grow up. Most people, myself included, probably get their knowledge of the criminal justice system from “Law and Order”. Don’t get me wrong I love “Law and Order” and other similar T shows but in those shows we only see the good stuff. The stuff that makes good TV. We don’t see the minutia, the mistakes, the errors, and we don’t see all the strange things that can apparently happening our system that we are never aware of until people report it to us.
When I come across these instances of inconsistent execution of our criminal justice system it really makes me feel like any outcome is possible for anyone who is involved with the system. It is really a cause for concern for me. I don’t pretend to know how to fix it. That is for smarter people than I. But it does seem clear that we somehow need to do a better job on a variety of fronts. I don’t envy the jobs anyone in the legal system does from police to lawyers to judges and juries and all the support staff surrounding them. They have some of the most important jobs in the country and some of the most highly scrutinized jobs in the country.
I think for the most part our criminal justice system gets it right but when it goes off the rails, boy does it go off the rails.