Clouds hung over the state supreme courthouse as the small group gathered. Above the fluted columns of the majestic building are inscribed: "The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government." The words are attributed to George Washington as he and his colleagues grappled with forming a democratic republic that would be not just free from the shackles of rule by inherited royalty, but also free from the corruption that inheres in a moneyed class whose power and wealth are tightly held and assumed.
In the new fledgling government, lady justice would be blind--not blind to corruption that corrodes the ideals but blind in its administration of fairness and the rule of law. A young woman costumed in white flowing robes and a blindfold, helped hold up the group's sign: Support the New York State Commission on Prosecutorial Misconduct.
The truth was supposed to be self-evident. But what was evident from the speakers who related their stories is this: the criminal justice system is broken from top to bottom. It's not just the cops on the streets; nor is it only the guards on Riker's Island; nor is it confined to overburdened Legal Aid lawyers, or prosecutors and ADAs, or even judges and juries. The rot is woven into the system, as much a part of it as Lady Justice.
At what point does the system topple under its own weight? It isn't only about race; it's an equal opportunity poison that strikes at the heart of the system delivering a slow death. Racial discrimination is central because it's an easy frame, but the metastasis is blind to color and feeds on itself. The speakers took their turns: Bill Bastuk, white, a former Monroe County councilman, indicted on false accusations of rape of a minor; Jeffrey Deskovic, white, falsely convicted of rape and murder at age 17, served 16 years before being exonerated; Jennifer Wilkov, white, an award winning author and a financial advisor, accused of financial fraud, spent several months on Rikers Island, exonerated by a subsequent FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) hearing, now seeking to overturn her conviction; Kareem Bellamy, African American, falsely accused of murder, wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years prior to being proven innocent; Anthony Ortiz, Hispanic, spent 16 years in prison for murder prior to exoneration.
These are just a handful of those whose lives have been shattered. From their own data, the Innocence Project estimates that as much as 5 percent of the incarcerated population may be innocent. This organization is focused on DNA exonerations, which in many cases doesn't exist. Other organizations, like the Deskovic Foundation, put the number at as high as 15 percent, but we'll never know for sure. We can only count successful exonerations after the fact, and though the list of exonerees grows, funding to try to prove them and get them overturned is scarce. But even if the real number turns out to be "only" 5 percent, given that we have the largest prison population in the Western world (over 2.2 million according to the latest DOJ statistics), it means there could be more than 100,000 innocent people behind bars. We're paying a high price for that shocking figure.
The group held fast to their banner in front of the courthouse steps. Walking for the cameras, holding their signs in letters writ large--It Could Happen To You--the bullhorn vied for attention from the lunch crowd exiting the building. A few curious bystanders stopped, but most barely looked; justice is blind.
The terrible injustices from Ferguson to Texas to North Carolina, from California to Ohio make headlines in New York, but New York is riddled with its own problems that don't begin and end with the sale of loose cigarettes. The state is second in the nation in the number of wrongful convictions, and those are the ones we know about. For anyone unfazed by the idea of an innocent person doing time, think about the cost of housing and feeding an innocent person who is removed from being a contributing member of society; the cost of not finding the real perpetrator who often repeats the crime, believing (not unreasonably) that he won't be caught; the cost of retrials, appeals, and much-deserved compensation to the victims.
So, yes, it is about the economics, but it goes much deeper. It's also about a system that is failing from top to bottom--from the bankers who are not prosecuted to the men and women on the streets who are unfairly targeted. It is too late to expect that changing the system around the edges will change anything? Some say it will take a revolution; others are willing to keep trying to work within the system, but will the center hold? It's still a long road to travel.
In New York state, advocacy groups like the one tenaciously demonstrating recently, among many others, are pushing for legislation that would set up an oversight commission on prosecutorial conduct. The bill, now in its third incarnation as A8634 and S6286, would apply similar safeguards and oversight on county DA offices as the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which was established in 1975. There's an uphill fight to get this bill passed, and that's only the first step. Governor Cuomo cannot give mere lip service to being on board; he must not get in the way of implementation as he was quick to do with the Moreland Commission (which he set up and then disbanded when it threatened his own turf, and perhaps him). U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was not pleased with that move, but there's no word about whether he is still investigating the now defunct commission. He has his hands full: it was his office that brought indictments against both Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, and that's in addition to some of the banksters his office has managed to nab.
So there are some good guys who have some power. Maybe it takes a naturalized citizen like Bharaha to play David to the Goliath of American corruption. And if New York can muster the support to enact the new commission, we will still need its clones in many other parts of the country. As Ferguson fades, another remote, heretofore unremarkable town or suburb gets their 15 minutes of fame when its citizens film their own version of Cops Gone Wild. But who will film the under-the-table deals made by the prosecutors?