Recent news of the West Memphis Three — freed on the condition that they confess their guilt, thus sparing sociopathic prosecutors any public embarrassment — raises an old question.
The state’s defenders commonly argue that, no matter how fallible or corrupt individual public officials may be, they’ll be restrained by checks and balances built into the system.
But what happens when the system’s institutional culture is corrupt to the core? What if it’s not just “a few bad apples” among cops and prosecutors, but their whole professional culture?
And what happens when a number of institutions, with their corrupt cultures, coalesce into a mutually-reinforcing system: not only cops and prosecutors, the correctional system, federal law enforcement, and Drug Warrior politicians, but also narco traffickers, the banks that launder drug money, and the intelligence agencies that use the drug trade to fund death squads and terrorists?
But for now let’s just narrow it down to prosecutors. What happens when, under the prevailing institutional culture of prosecuting attorneys, once a person is convicted prosecutors simply don’t care whether they’re actually guilty or not? What if they’d knowingly suppress evidence that would prevent an innocent person they knew to be innocent from being killed, preferring to commit cold-blooded murder than to sully their precious conviction record?
I’m beginning to suspect that finding an honest prosecutor would be beyond the power even of Diogenes.
Now, if prosecutors really believed any of the high-sounding rhetoric about “justice” they throw around, the average prosecutor would sincerely want to know if a convicted person turned out to be innocent. If her honest motive was to punish the guilty and protect society, she would actually care — care deeply — whether the person being punished was actually guilty. If evidence came out that the prosecutor had been wrong, and the defendant had been wrongfully convicted, the prosecutor would breathe a sigh of relief. “Thank heavens that came out in time! Otherwise, I’d have been complicit in the death of an innocent person!”
When did you ever hear of a prosecutor, out of genuine love for justice, welcoming evidence that cleared an innocent person? On the contrary, the prosecutorial culture is obsessed with rigging procedural rules to guarantee such evidence can never surface to embarrass them. In a discussion panel of Texas prosecutors in 2007, one member solicited advice on how to structure a plea agreement so as to bar any subsequent DNA testing. Williamson County DA John Bradley responded — to his chagrin, apparently — that “innocence… has proven to trump most anything.” The best way to forestall this, he continued, was to destroy all evidence immediately after conviction. “Then, there is nothing to test or retest.”
And Bradley walks the walk. In the case of Michael Morton, convicted of murder in 1987, Bradley not only withheld crucial evidence from the defense — a practice in which would-be Joan of Arc Nancy Grace also engaged. To make sure the convicted man damn well stayed convicted, guilty or not, he made every effort to prevent subsequent DNA testing. Morton was recently freed on the basis of just such testing, no thanks to Bradley.
Now enter Governor Rick Perry. Back when the Texas Forensic Science Commission was digging into the conviction of Cameron Willingham, who was almost certainly innocent, Perry replaced three commissioners with more prosecutor-friendly stooges — one of whom was Bradley. All to make sure that Willingham died — freeing an innocent man might have made Perry look “soft on crime,” see.
The really scary part is that, to a certain segment of the American Right, it really is more important that somebody — anybody — be punished than to make sure you’re punishing the right person. In the words of an admirer in a Rick Perry focus group, “it takes balls to execute an innocent man.”
It’s interesting that, among a segment of the population that claims to live in fear that government will abuse its powers and act tyrannically, the part of the state that actually makes it a state, rather than a debating society — the part that enforces the commands of the state and punishes disobedience — actually comes in for admiration for behaving tyrannically and abusing its powers. Civil libertarians, who genuinely want to restrain the state’s power to do evil, are held in contempt as “soft on crime.”
As Radley Balko explained: “A state government has no more awesome, complete, or solemn power than the power to execute its own citizens. If you’re going to claim to loathe big government, this is one area where you ought to be more skeptical of government than any other.”
If someone worships the power of uniformed, armed thugs, and celebrates the lawless abuse of power by such thugs, there’s nothing “small government” about them.