Tuesday, January 25, 2005
I recently came across a new paper by Michael Naughton of University of Bristol titled Why the Failure of the Prison Service and the Parole Board to Acknowledge Wrongful Imprisonment is Untenable. He argues an important point of relevance to the wrongly convicted. Namely, that parole boards almost universally refuse to release inmates on parole who refuse to accept responsibility for the crimes of which they have been convicted. Acceptance of responsibility is undoubtedly an important part of the rehabilitative process, and should be considered heavily. But this practice ignores recent evidence of the number of wrongfully convicted in this country, who as a result of these parole board policies, often end up serving longer sentences than their guilty counterparts. Abstract and article here.
This phenomenon has caused me a great deal of concern in my position as the Director of an Innocence Project. I represent a group of inmates at the current time for whom we have developed a reasonable amount of evidence of innocence, and whom I personally believe are innocent. However, given that judges often expect DNA-type ironclad proof of innocence for exonerations, our evidence in some of these cases is arguably insufficient to clear them in court under the exceedingly high standards for exoneration in my state (some of my parole clients could meet the standard, but have chosen to seek release on parole first and then fight to clear their names in court later). Thus, our first step is to obtain parole for these inmates if they are eligible. But the fact that these inmates adamantly refuse to admit guilt means that they might spend more time in prison than other inmates for whom absolutely no evidence of innocence exists.
The parole board in my state, however, has on some occasions, unlike some other parole boards, shown a willingness to "think the unthinkable," as Naughton calls it, and recognize that sometimes wrongful convictions occur. If you are in such a state, the next hurdle is that parole board hearings as currently set up in many states are not conducive to proving innocence. Typically, inmates in many states get just a few minutes to put on his or her case. After going through their excellent record in prison, etc., 2-3 minutes is simply not enough time to develop a convincing case of possible innocence in order to provide a plausible explanation as to why the inmate has not admitted guilt. Then, the prosecution and victim's family often has the chance to present their case for an extended period of time, typically using hearsay and other evidence that cannot be refuted (the inmate often does not have a rebuttal argument in many states). In many states, this procedure does not come close to resembling an adversarial proceeding where evidence of innocence can be thoroughly reviewed and considered.
Naughton's argument needs to be taken seriously. We need to come up with constructive ways to balance the competing interests so that evidence of innocence can be presented to parole boards in a fair way, and without having it automatically backfire and cause the inmate in question to serve more time than his clearly guilty counterparts. [Mark Godsey]