Our Sense of “innocent Until Proven Guilty” Gets Tested — and It Hurts Most When We Get It Wrong

Apparently, we need to chat again about John Wiley Price - and why his doomed public corruption trial isn't the end of the world.But first, riddle me this: Would you rather see someone innocent of a crime convicted and punished, possibly locked up for years?Or, would you rather see a person who is guilty as sin get away it?It shouldn't surprise you to learn that, even with the best criminal justice system in the world, we don't always get it right.We're brought to tears when we read about someone falsely accused of a murder, rape or some other heinous crime, only to be cleared years later by DNA evidence. There've been at least 350 such cases across 37 states over the past quarter-century, according to the Innocence Project. The last one happened just two months ago, when an Indiana man with a history of mental health issues, was set free for a rape he was convicted of 25 years ago.It's no longer shocking that William Barnhouse was convicted in 1992 for a crime he didn't commit. What's telling is the way he was railroaded by the system.His case points up how the state can stack the deck against a defendant from the start, shattering the presumption of innocence in the public's eye, if not a jury's.In Barnhouse's case, for example, police used a highly suggestive technique to get an eye witness to identify him as the rapist. The prosecution also relied on conclusions from a forensic serologist at the Indiana State Police crime lab whose testimony about semen found on the victim later was disproven by DNA testing.And then there was the microscopic hair analyst from the same crime lab who testified that a hair recovered from the victim's body "matched" the kind on Barnhouse's scalp."In 2013, the FBI acknowledged that testimony asserting that a crime scene hair is a 'match' to a particular defendant's hair through microscopic hair comparisons implies a level of certainty that exceeds the limits of science," according to the Innocence Project.Moreover, a comprehensive review of "FBI analyst testimony and reports has revealed that analysts provided erroneous testimony or reports in more than 90 percent of cases reviewed so far."Barnhouse may not be an isolated victim of a legal system that got it all wrong."The only way for the state to know whether other people were wrongly convicted by erroneous hair testimony is for the state to conduct a thorough and independent review of all cases where microscopic hair analysis was conducted and contributed to a conviction," Frances Lee Watson, director of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Indiana University's school of law, said in an article on the Innocence Project website. "I hope this heartbreaking case will spur the state to take immediate action."The Barnhouse case came to mind because it's so fresh. I could just as easily pluck one from Texas, or from Dallas County, two entities that have had more than their fair share of exonerations.But here's my point: No matter how wonderful our criminal justice system is, it is not without faults.That's why we can never, ever, under any circumstances, take the "presumption of innocence" lightly or take for granted constitutional rights to a fair trial and adequate counsel.For our system to work the way it should, it must be severely tested from time to time. We've seen, as the hundreds of exonerations remind, that innocence isn't always enough.We've also seen - perhaps most famously during the O.J. Simpson trial - how savvy attorneys can cast reasonable doubt on the most incriminating evidence imaginable."If it doesn't fit," the late Johnnie Cochran crowed after his client tried on a glove used in that crime, "you must acquit."So what does any of that have to do with John Wiley Price?Well, we are in Texas.  Continue reading...

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