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Opinion

Opinion

Injustice continues after prison

April 21, 2011

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The DNA says he didn’t do it. The prosecutor and victim still say he did, but DNA is definitive and tests found none of Derrick Williams’ on the shirt the victim says her rapist wore when she was attacked in 1992.

Williams, of Palmetto, Fla., has always maintained his innocence; witnesses placed him at a family barbecue at the time of the assault and he offered blood and saliva samples to prove he was not the culprit, but the rapist had left no sperm samples they could be tested against and no means then existed to extract DNA from clothing.

So the case largely came down to the victim’s word against his. On that basis, Williams spent 18 years in prison. He was freed this month, his conviction overturned thanks to a DNA test paid for by the Innocence Project of Florida.

And maybe you think this is the part of the story where Williams, 48, gets his life back, maybe with some financial compensation from the state that wronged him. You would be mistaken.

Williams is legally barred from even applying. Under a 2008 Florida law, no one who seeks compensation for wrongful incarceration can have prior felony convictions on his record. Williams has several nonviolent felonies, including larceny. So the state takes 18 years of his life, says in effect, “Oops, my bad” and that’s supposed to be the end of it? Incredibly, yes.

The worst part is not that the law is absurdly mean-spirited and punitive. No, the worst part is that it is also absurdly short-sighted.

It has that in common with laws and policies all over the country that impinge upon a former felon’s re-entry into the mainstream. In some states, an ex-felon loses the right to vote for life. Ex-felons can also be denied work, housing, loans, the right to serve on a jury.

But here’s the thing: If you pinch off every avenue by which a former offender seeks to better him- or herself, what route do you leave open? Only the one that leads back to prison.

Politicians love to posture about being “tough on crime.” They compete to see who can impose the more Draconian punishment — from candidate Bill Clinton executing a retarded man to Sheriff Joe Arpaio serving prisoners green bologna and moldy bread. It’s good politics to do so, and politics, make no mistake, is what this is all about. So we toss aside the old ideal that once a convict paid his or her “debt to society,” he or she was entitled to a second chance. Granted, not every offender would take that chance. But to remove the chance from the equation altogether is to ensure that no one can. It is to put a thumb on the scales of rehabilitation.

If that makes life hard for the ex-con trying to straighten out his life, it’s also no picnic for the citizen who gets mugged when the con decides it’s impossible.

Note that when a reporter from the Bradenton Herald tried to reach Derrick Williams for an interview recently, his sister said he was out looking for a job. The economy being what it is, his resume being what it is, and the political climate being what it is, how would you assess his chances? They are poor at best. But we should never be so “tough on crime” as to make going straight impossible. At least, assuming our goal is to punish and rehabilitate.

Some days, it seems it’s just to punish — and then punish some more.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Comments

bliddel 2 years, 11 months ago

People who claim to know everything often do not. People who claim to know more about other people's motives and beliefs often do not. People who think police can do no wrong are wrong themselves. It might be true that 95% of police are pretty good people, but 5% can really mess things up for those unfortunate enough to have a run-in with them.

Nothing I say here will change anyone's mind. Nobody likes to be proven wrong. Time and time again, prosecutors have steadfastly sworn that everyone they tried was guilty, without exception. The prisons may be full of people all of whom insist they are innocent, and that does not mean that all of them are innocent, nor does it mean that all of them are lying about their innocence. My problem with some prosecutors is that they fight tooth and nail to prevent DNA studies which might result in convictions being overturned, as though their career is about wins and losses, and not about justice. Oops, that 's exactly the problem. To these people, it is not about justice - it is about winning.

People not only have to be civil (and they have been civil on this thread - thank you all), but they have to have an open mind. That's very difficult for some people.

The justice system needs to improve. The court's erosion of basic civil liberties (in the name of national security or being tough on crime) does not help matters any.

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jhawkinsf 2 years, 11 months ago

For several days I, along with several other posters have gone back and forth with this case. I'd like to summarize some problems I have with this case.
Much of the information we've been relying on is given to us by Mr. Pitts, a reporter. He is generally considered an opinion writer, not an investigative writer. I think the distinction is important because he is trying to lead us from point A to point B, not by giving us all the facts, just giving us facts that will likely prove his point. He said he could not get in touch with Mr. Williams because he was out looking for a job. Can't you just feel yourself being led somewhere with that statement. He never mentions whether or not he tried to get in touch with the victim or prosecutor, both of whom maintain Mr. Williams' guilt. Maybe that is because they will give another scenario, one that will lead us away from the he said/she said that Mr. Pitts suggests. I'm troubled by their silence. Mr. Williams gave an alibi, was it believable? Why don't we ask a juror. There were 12 of them, surely Mr. Pitts could have found one. Their silence troubles me also.
How do we compare the demeanor of accuser vs. accused? Again, the silence troubles me. A jury got to see things we can only speculate upon. Why did Mr. Pitts not get in touch with any of them? Are we being led, again? Why was Mr. Williams not tried again? If his conviction was overturned because of a technicality, the state has the option of retrying him. I'm speculating, but if his original sentence was say 20 years, the state may simply choose not to do so because he already spent 18 years in jail. I would really like to hear the opinion of the prosecutor about this. But again, Mr. Pitts is silent. Mr. Pitts has led us all along a path of his choosing. He then asks us all to come up with the obvious conclusion, a conclusion of his choosing. And we may not ask any questions along the way.
I, for one, will reserve judgement until more facts are presented. Until I hear the voices of the accuser, prosecutor, and at least a couple of jurors, I reserve judgement. Until a more complete reasoning of the appellate court's decision's decision is presented, I'll reserve judgement.

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Gandalf 2 years, 12 months ago

I can't see where a lack of dna on a shirt would be grounds for aquital. Even if they found other dna on the shirt it could have come from a friend she gave a hug. Or even a passerby she might have brushed against.

I would have to have a lot more facts to go on to make a decision. I'm assuming the jury made the best decision with the information they had.

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jayhawklawrence 2 years, 12 months ago

I am so disgusted with politics.

I am not sure from one week to the next which party is more worthless.

Here's a case where the political leaders need to get off the sidelines and try to help this guy. Even if it puts them at risk politically.

If we turn everything over to lawyers and politicians guess what we will end up with?

What we have today. A 14 trillion dollar debt and a bunch of lawyers pointing fingers.

Does that make any sense?

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BABBOY 2 years, 12 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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jayhawklawrence 2 years, 12 months ago

For the most part, I agree with Pitts.

18 years in Hell and all we can do is throw him out on the street.

That's just not right.

Anyway you spin it he was an innocent man.

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sun45kiss 2 years, 12 months ago

As a society we have to open doors for felon's to gain employment and voting rights. Once you do your time--it's done. It should not continue to hinder you in trying to restore yourself. As much as I do not like Rev. Wright; Obama's ex-preacher he did have a good point in regard to felons not being able to start over. But, yet immigrants can come here with priors and get a fresh start....hummmm how unfair that is to our fellow Americans born and breed here.

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yourworstnightmare 2 years, 12 months ago

By the way, has Shewmon been banned? I haven't seen any of his broken-record, parrot-the-line posts recently.

Surely he would be commenting on this Pitts editorial.

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jafs 2 years, 12 months ago

There are no "factual findings of innocence" in our system.

There are verdicts of guilty or not guilty, based on whether or not the state is determined to have met it's burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt or not.

Innocent people are wrongly convicted and guilty people are wrongly acquitted.

Juries are made of people, with all of their biases and preconceptions, with a wide range of intelligence, tolerance for ambiguity, pressures that make them want to finish quickly, etc.

They consider the "facts" presented in the case, and make their determination.

That's all.

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jhawkinsf 2 years, 12 months ago

Before we go too far with this, let's remember that there is a huge difference between innocent and not guilty. I read the article quickly, but did Mr. Pitts assert that a court ruled Mr. Williams innocent or was there just insufficient grounds to uphold a guilty conviction, at which point he would be considered not guilty? Lack of DNA does not prove innocence, though it might sway a jury towards a not guilty verdict. But that did not happen. What is not mentioned is whether a court of law actually found Mr. Williams factually innocent or whether the assertion of innocence is Mr. Pitts'.

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jhawkinsf 2 years, 12 months ago

I have a problem with Mr. Pitts' assertion that the state wrongfully took away 18 years of Mr. Williams' life. I'm not sure what it is that the state did wrong. There was an accuser who identified Mr. Williams in the attack. He was brought to trial and convicted. The fact that a jury made a mistake and that it took 18 years to correct that mistake is unfortunate. The article does not state how his innocence was discovered but what is clear from the article is that there is no assertion that the state behaved in any unethical manner in order to secure a conviction. They simply presented evidence to a jury. Mr. Pitts says that Mr. Williams is looking for a job but will have a tough time, considering his resume. The 18 years behind bars may hurt but if he were wrongfully convicted, someone might give him a chance. But prior to that Mr. Williams was less than an ideal citizen. He had "several" convictions. A resume containing those convictions would hurt his current job prospects. Should the state compensate Mr. Williams for his lost wages while behind bars, but then deduct from that the cost to society because of what he would have stolen, since he appeared well on his way to being a career criminal. Those lost years are the price we pay for a criminal justice system that is not perfect. If we want a perfect system, let's open the doors to every jail in the land and let everyone out, because a perfect system is impossible.

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jafs 2 years, 12 months ago

Good points.

If we were really serious about reducing recidivism, and turning criminals into productive members of society (as much as possible), our system would be very different.

And, perhaps less expensive as well.

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