What would happen if a prosecutor announced that he was setting a bunch of murderers and rapists free, pretty much at random? He or she would be pilloried.
But in practice, that’s what happens every time someone is wrongly convicted of a violent crime.
We’ve known for some time that there are serious flaws with the forensics system. DNA evidence, where available, has turned over convictions. Now a horrifying Washington Post report reveals further systemic abuse: “of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far.” These include 32 cases in which defendants were sentenced to death, of whom 14 have been executed or died in prison.
In other words, forensic “experts” lie. And almost always on the side of the prosecution.
Setting murderers and rapists free
The discussion of these cases almost always focuses on the people who have been wrongly convicted. And it should: these are lives destroyed by criminal justice system, and in many cases we still have the opportunity to set these people free, if not undo the damage.
What rarely gets a mention, though, is the hundreds of violent criminals — murderers, rapists, arsonists — who’ve been set free by this flawed system. For every person rotting in jail on a wrongful conviction, there’s a criminal who got away with it.
It’s true that some of these criminals end up in prison for other things they do wrong, but that’s cold comfort. In some cases, they’re in prison for violent crimes they committed after the crimes they got away with.
Protecting public safety
It’s hard to get traction for overturning false convictions. Prisoners are powerless by design, and they’re often unsympathetic characters, which is part of how they ended up convicted in the first place.
Instead, it might make sense to frame the issue as a matter of public safety. Even for old convictions, it’s worrying that murderers, rapists, arsonists, and other violent criminals are still lurking — or might be. These may be cold cases, but they’re cases nonetheless. Predators are unaccounted for. How can that be okay?
I am not arguing for increasing our prison population or for treating violent criminals more harshly. Indeed, I think we need to refocus our justice system on rehabilitation because prisoners are mostly going to rejoin the world sooner or later.
But I am arguing that we should find and prosecute violent criminals, not ignore them because we’ve already convicted someone else. Overturning false convictions and setting people free is a matter of public safety because it will allow the system to pursue those who did commit terrible crimes.
There shouldn’t be a statute of limitations on murder — even if someone else has already been wrongly convicted of the crime.