Washington — The latest release of a prisoner from death row due to DNA evidence proves more than the irrefutable error of an irreversible sentence. It proves that the jury system is too fallible. Any system based upon human judgment is inherently fallible. The question is how to make it less so.
Eighteen years ago, Charles Fain was convicted of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl in Nampa, Idaho. An FBI expert testified that three hairs found on the girl's body probably matched Mr. Fain's hair. He was wrong. DNA testing was not available then, but it is now, and it has proved conclusively that the hair did not belong to Mr. Fain.
Mr. Fain joins six other men who were awaiting execution on death row this year and who have now been freed. They are joined by scores of others who likewise nearly lost their lives over the last few decades. In some of those cases, authorities continue to claim they had the right men, but simply not enough evidence. It is just such thinking that goes against the basis of our system of justice: You are innocent until proven guilty.
There is no provision in our system that allows for a verdict of "innocent; presumed guilty." Yet, the judge who sentenced Mr. Fain says, "If I had the slightest doubt, I certainly would not have imposed the death penalty." And worse, the prosecutor in the case said, "The DNA evidence doesn't really change my opinion that much that Fain's guilty."
The judge and prosecutor have stepped over the line. Until a person is convicted, he is only alleged to have committed the crime in question. And when a person is acquitted, he is said to be guilty only by people who are prepared to be sued for slander. So it is unseemly for a judge and a prosecutor to continue to pronounce guilty someone whom the courts have judged to be innocent.
This brings us to the heart of the problem: People are flawed, so juries, judges and prosecutors are flawed. What is needed is an equitable and economical system of checks and balances. If a jury pronounces a verdict of "not guilty," the case should be closed. If the jury says, "guilty," the case should be subject to being overturned by the trial judge, in which instance, the case would be closed. And if the trial judge does not overturn, then any case involving jail time should automatically be reviewed by a three-judge panel on a higher court. Such a panel would limit its purview to the trial transcript and written briefs from the prosecutor and defense counsel.
Such a system would solve several problems:
1. Fewer cases would burden the appeals courts.
2. Blatantly flawed decisions would be overturned quickly.
3. Indigent defendants would have the benefit of automatic reviews, which would increase their chances of receiving impartial decisions.
4. Unfair sentences could be reduced.
5. Most important of all, the likelihood of sending an innocent person to jail would diminish dramatically.
It is a great crime for the state to send an innocent person to jail and a worse crime to deprive him of his life. The public's faith in the justice system and the government itself is lessened. So it is incumbent upon us to combine modern technology with a new system of checks and balances to enhance fairness and credibility.