Wrongful convictions involving police and/or prosecutorial misconduct (corruption) is multi-faceted and encompasses a vast variety of reasons and causes.
Even a single act of impropriety or act of misconduct, whether it’s an honest mistake or a deliberate act, can result in injustice. For each additional impropriety or act of misconduct, the risk of injustice increases proportionately.
Improprieties and acts of misconduct can occur at any time during the criminal justice process and may include anyone involved including police, prosecution, judges, attorney’s, experts, juries and civilian witnesses.
Any of those mentioned is capable of making an honest mistake which could possibly lead to injustice. Careless, inadvertent or otherwise unintentional mistakes are quite common and understandable but can still cause injustice if not discovered and corrected. More troubling is a “mistake” that is not really a mistake, but rather a deliberate or intentional act of misconduct.
Misconduct by individuals in positions of authority is not something new. It’s been going on for years. There is no single cause or reason why these individuals choose to engage in acts of misconduct. Many of the acts of misconduct are “justified” by the individuals involved believing that it’s right or necessary in the “interest of justice”. Misconduct therefore, stems from a result-oriented process, with fairness be damned. Individuals who engage in misconduct may allow themselves to be influenced by a number of things such as, peer pressure, community or, departmental pressure, competition, performance ratings, politics, promotion, or for a variety of selfish reasons to benefit themselves.
Authority figures will often take advantage of their trusted position of authority as a license to abuse their authority and engage in misconduct, knowing that there is little or no oversight or accountability for their actions. For some, the lack of some type of oversight or accountability, is an open invitation for misconduct. Some will even be bold enough to engage in misconduct knowing that others are present and aware of such, but trust that nothing will be said or done because doing so would bring disgrace and ridicule on anyone who reported such misconduct. There may be those who are aware of such misconduct and disapprove but fear to say anything. Thus, the ordinarily honest authority figure is dragged into, becomes a part of, and compounds the misconduct. And the risk of injustice is raised another notch.
Some acts of misconduct are much more serious than others. But when misconduct involves tampering with, or fabricating evidence and then offering perjured testimony, the misconduct has evolved to a criminal level and the authority figure who engages in such becomes no better than the person they are trying to convict. But again, they justify their misconduct as being right or acceptable in the “interest of justice”. They see nothing wrong in their acts of misconduct as long as “justice is done”. Unfortunately, and very troubling is that many private citizens as well as jurors, are willing to turn their heads to acts of misconduct that they too find acceptable, in the “interest of justice”. So the question becomes, how do we educate the public to help them understand that this conduct is inappropriate and unacceptable and should not be tolerated?
Any act of misconduct by a person in a trusted position of authority creates a bad name for all the others in that same profession that work so hard to seek justice with honesty, integrity and hard work. But because of these incidents of misconduct, the honest, hard-working professionals are finding it more and more difficult to do their job. The respect they once had in the communities where they work is steadily declining. And citizens are more and more reluctant to cooperate or get involved out of fear that they too will become the victims of misconduct.
Misconduct can manifest itself in almost any way imaginable. It can be very minor to very major and everything in between. Those who engage in misconduct may start out at a minor level and later progress to a higher level. Once they realize that their misconduct has successfully aided in a conviction, and that their misconduct has gone unnoticed or unchallenged, they are encouraged to continue. The problem is further compounded when the violator receives accolades in the form of, a simple pat on the back, or high five, to a promotion or departmental or community award for their hard work in securing a conviction. In their effort to maintain that level of recognition, they do not hesitate to engage in further, more major acts of misconduct to do so. And the risk of injustice jumps up another notch.
“Glory without honor is worse than fraud”
We are continually being reminded of these injustices when we hear repeated stories of men and women being exonerated after years or decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Without proper oversight and accountability, authority figures within the criminal justice system are free to engage in acts of misconduct without fear of being held accountable for their actions. Even when issues of misconduct are recognized, little or nothing is ever done in the form of discipline or punishment for those responsible. More often than not, those responsible are allowed to continue to work within the system. This issue is even more troubling knowing that these same public servants have all raised their right hands and took a sworn oath before taking office. To then consciously ignore and betray that oath in the “interest of justice” is unconscionable. Furthermore, they will then walk into a court of law, swear to tell the truth, sit in that witness stand, look you right in the eye and perjure themselves. Then they will walk out of that court room believing they have done the right thing.
“To do injustice is more disgraceful than to suffer it” (Plato)
Oath of office: The widely used oath embraced by the International Association of Chiefs of Police reads, "On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the Constitution, my community, and the agency I serve."
Oh, how quickly they forget.
Unless or until these individuals are held accountable for their acts of misconduct, the integrity of our criminal justice system will continue sliding down that slippery slope, resulting in even more atrocious injustices. And those responsible will continue their misconduct which will ultimately lead to even greater injustices. Will you or a loved one be their next victim?
David M. Beers