Fri | Aug 12, 2022

Kristen Gyles | Criminal convictions and the truth that doesn’t matter

Published:Friday | June 24, 2022 | 12:06 AM
Under a new Bail Act that is to be proposed by the Government, persons charged with murder and other gun crimes will be denied bail. Is the basis for this the assumption that if you are charged with murder, you are a murderer and therefore a risk to societ
Under a new Bail Act that is to be proposed by the Government, persons charged with murder and other gun crimes will be denied bail. Is the basis for this the assumption that if you are charged with murder, you are a murderer and therefore a risk to society?

One month ago, Thomas James was released from a Florida prison after spending 32 years behind bars. In 1991, at age 23, he was convicted of first-degree murder because the victim’s stepdaughter testified that she had seen James participating in the...

One month ago, Thomas James was released from a Florida prison after spending 32 years behind bars. In 1991, at age 23, he was convicted of first-degree murder because the victim’s stepdaughter testified that she had seen James participating in the robbery which resulted in the death of her stepfather. Years later, she came forward to say she had made a mistake and had identified the wrong man. As it turned out, the police had arrested the wrong Thomas James for the murder, who actually has a slight resemblance to his namesake.

Kevin Strickland, also now exonerated, served 43 years imprisonment in Missouri after being convicted for three murders in 1979. The sole survivor of the attack withdrew her testimony which identified him as one of four men who committed the crime. Two other men who were convicted of the crime also said he had no connection to the crime and actually identified other accomplices. He was released last year.

Again, there is a Lamar Johnson, who was convicted of murder in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison. He is still in prison fighting for his freedom, with the aid of a St Louis circuit attorney who recently discovered a record of payments made to the only eyewitness in the case. The eyewitness has since withdrawn his testimony and two other persons have confessed to the crime.

MOST CERTAINLY A CRIMINAL

Clearly, a number of prosecutors are working to overturn wrongful convictions in the United States. Across the US, there are over 70 Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) that work to investigate claims of innocence where there is evidence that could suggest that someone was wrongfully convicted. There is also a wide network of Innocence organisations, including the New York-based Innocent Project, which provides free legal services to wrongfully convicted people. Last year, roughly 160 persons were exonerated in the US due to wrongful convictions.

For the benefit of those who are sure to ask, I am sharing these American experiences because unfortunately, in Jamaica, we don’t have an Innocence Project. We don’t have a National Registry of Exonerations and we don’t have Conviction Integrity Units. Frankly, I’m not sure that we want to have any of those things that ‘waste’ taxpayer dollars on the rights of ‘criminals’. This is the way many Jamaicans reason. As far as they are concerned, if you were criminal enough to be charged, you are most certainly a criminal.

The scourge of crime has made the Jamaican society so bloodthirsty for justice that it seems it doesn’t even matter much who pays for the crimes committed. All that matters is that someone pays.

In well-developed countries, the justice system does get it wrong sometimes. There is no doubt in my mind that our justice system also gets it wrong sometimes. In some cases, guilty people walk free and in others, innocent people take the fall. While this happens virtually everywhere, the difference is that we, here in Jamaica, don’t seem to care until we or our brothers and fathers are the falsely accused.

Recently, the announcement was made that, under a new Bail Act that is to be proposed by the Government, persons charged with murder and other gun crimes will be denied bail. Is the basis for this the assumption that if you are charged with murder, you are a murderer and therefore a risk to society? If so, the error lies right in the middle. It does not follow that someone charged with murder is a murderer. A person being charged with a crime does not mean they committed the crime, and in fact, the presumption up until the individual is found to be guilty should be that they are innocent. Why? Because any innocent person can be accused of a crime they did not commit. That happens often, by the way.

Additionally, I wrote some time ago that it does not follow that someone found with an illegal firearm committed a murder or had any intention of doing so, for that matter.

HEADING DOWN A SLOPE

Jamaica is fast heading down a slope to a state of affairs where justice simply doesn’t matter. All that matters is that someone pays – anyone, but someone. I am convinced that this is so, primarily because earlier this year, an entire mob of citizens was okay stabbing a man to death because they ‘thought’ he was Davian Bryan, the alleged child abductor from St Thomas. What on earth is going wrong? People losing their senses? Jamaicans should not allow the horrendous crime rates to eat away at their brains.

Between the demon-possessed criminals and the supposedly law-abiding members of society who advocate for alleged criminals to be quartered and have their eyes plucked out, this world has become a very, very unpleasant and scary place.

What is dismally discouraging is the fact that, whenever such points are raised, cousins of the angry jungle-justice serving mob are always ready to point to the crime statistics as the basis for doing away with the very justice the justice system is supposed to uphold. Knee-jerk reactions to the sky-high murder rates continue to abound and are a clear indication that we have officially entered panic mode.

Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Email feedback to kristengyles@gmail.com.