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A Wrongful Conviction

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Message Jayne Stahl
The word "conviction" is defined by Webster's in three ways: 1) the act or process of convicting of a crime, especially in a court of law, 2) the act of convincing a person of error of compelling the admission of truth, or the state of being convinced of error or compelled to admit the truth, and 3) a strong persuasion or belief. Taking the last first, Earl Washington was convicted of the 1982 rape and murder of a Virginia woman, Rebecca Williams, for which he spent 17 years in prison, and came within about a week of receiving the death penalty based on what we now know was a forced, and fabricated, confession. This week, as the Washington Post reports, based on DNA evidence, Virginia prosecutors brought charges against Kenneth Maurice Tinsley for the 1982 murder of Ms. Williams. Washington was convicted of a rape and murder he didn't commit largely because the jury was persuaded, or duped, by his false confession.

This week, we also witnessed another high profile confession fall apart, and must now ask, what place does persuasion, or belief have in a criminal justice system that provides for capital punishment? When DNA evidence is available to us, and we have science at our fingertips, doesn't the whole notion of "reasonable doubt" change such that it must now include indisputable scientific evidence that a convict is, in fact, culpable of the crime for which he, or she, has been charged?

While then Governor Wilder commuted Mr. Washington's sentence to life in prison, and not execution, it wasn't until 2003 that he was pardoned, but he was never officially vindicated.. No one has stood up and said: "We incarcerated, and nearly executed, the wrong man, an innocent man." One wonders where all the righteous indignation over not guilty verdict of O.J. Simpson is, and why it has been conspicuously absent where the wrongful conviction of innocent men is concerned? Is there no compulsion to admit that an error has been made, or are confessions of prosecutorial, or judicial, mistakes only viable when politically expedient? As Monday's Washington Post piece rightly states, "There is no place for arrogance in the criminal justice system." Further, there is no place for "conviction" that is predicated on a belief system, and not proof.

The release of accused Jonbenet Ramsey killer, John Mark Karr, shows how science, and DNA, can be used to invalidate, and challenge, those who are wrongly accused of committing a crime. The question inow becomes when we have scientific, irrefutable methods at our disposal to verify, and authenticate, culpability, how can we settle for anything less? Moreover, any conviction that is based on anything other than hard and fast DNA be viewed as anything but anecdotal, especially when the stakes are so high that the death sentence is on the table? Further, any inmate sentenced to die who has not been proven, through hard and fast scientific evidence, as having committed the crime for which he paid the ultimate price was murdered by the state, plain and simple.

Can a society that possesses the tools to produce evidence, beyond any doubt, reasonable or otherwise, who the agent of a crime is, accept anything less than proof positive that a man sitting on death row belongs there before even contemplating whether to administer death. Maybe it's time to put the death penalty on hold until we can establish that it is conceptually viable in an age when convictions are based more on belief than knowledge while there is the possibility of absolute certainty with respect to evidence.

Arguably, the very framework, and presuppositions, upon which capital punishment were fashioned, in this country, have been forever challenged by a simple, but irrefutable fact out of the state of Virginia this week; an innocent man was wrongly convicted, sentenced, and nearly put to death for a crime he did not commit. Setting aside the obvious moral concerns, for a minute, wouldn't it be appropriate to factor belief, and persuasion, out of the criminal justice process, and allow DNA, and concrete, indisputable forensic data to prevail? Had forensics, and DNA, been paramount instead of dubious, often transparent confessions, Earl Washington, and many more innocents like him, would not have lost 17 years of their lives, and their dignity. Without a doubt, justice is the biggest casualty when we turn those we convict into victims of a system that was originally intended to uncover the truth not cover mistakes made by arrogant, ambitious lawyers and judges. It's time to examine what role, if any, "belief" has in a context in which it is possible to know whether or not a crime was committed, and by whom.
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Widely published, poet, playwright, essayist, and screenwriter; member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA. Jayne Lyn Stahl is a Huffington Post blogger.
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