BY: The Exoneration Project

Ruminations on a Broken Criminal Justice System

Sometimes it is the little things that remind me of how truly broken our criminal justice system is. Two tidbits from my morning yesterday at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse reinforced that.

1.      My client Clarissa Glenn officially was denied a certificate of innocence. Clarissa is the wife of Ben Baker, who I have written about plenty on this blog. See here, or here, or here. Or even better, watch Ben speak himself here. What you may not know or remember is that Clarissa herself was wrongfully convicted and exonerated, too. That story is told well by the Chicago Tribune here.

In short, Clarissa (and Ben a second time) was framed by a corrupt group of police officers because she tried to expose their corruption. Clarissa had never had so much as even an arrest on her record previously. Yet these vile police officers planted boatloads of narcotics on her all because she tried to tell the truth about them. Faced with the prospect of a mandatory prison term—and knowing that Ben (the father of her three children) had already been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison—Clarissa was forced to plead guilty in exchange for probation. Ben also pled in exchange for an additional four year sentence.

Several months ago, when the true scope of the police corruption came to light, Clarissa was exonerated of this non-crime, along with Ben (his second exoneration). Weeks later, Ben got his certificate of innocence (again, his second). Clarissa, however, was denied. According to the court ruling, the statute required she be sentenced to a term of imprisonment, and probation doesn’t count. The judge repeatedly stated that Clarissa was absolutely innocent and otherwise met the conditions of the statute, but that he could not certify her innocent because she did not go to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

So, to sum up, Clarissa cannot get a piece of paper certifying her innocent by this State because she wasn’t sentenced harshly enough. A piece of paper that is extraordinarily meaningful to Clarissa. This is notwithstanding the fact that Clarissa’s wrongful conviction forced her to lose housing, employment opportunities, voting rights, and other government benefits. Notwithstanding that some corrupt cops forced her to raise three children on her own, and be separated from her husband for a decade. Notwithstanding the extraordinary emotional and psychological pain this entire situation has caused her and that is palpable to this day.

This is what is called the proverbial “slap in the face.” Actually, that term doesn’t do it justice. Nothing about this case can be called justice.

2.      My other tidbit was as a spectator. As I sat in a courtroom waiting for my case to be called, I watched a defendant get his probation violated. I know nothing about this case other than this individual was sentenced to probation for some sort of sex offense.

Why was his probation violated, you may ask?

This man was violated because his daughter wrote him a text message wishing him a happy birthday, and this man had the gall to reply and thank her for the message in a 7-word text. Despite the fact that it was clear that the 12-year-old daughter was not the victim of whatever sex offense this man was on probation for, this happy-birthday-text-reply violated the terms of his probation.

And to me, it gets worse. This “violation” was exposed because apparently this man alerted his court-required sex offender therapist of this brief communication with his daughter. The therapist went to the prosecutor and told him of this “violation.”

So let’s get this straight. A man seemingly committed some sort of sex offense. The offense wasn’t serious enough to sentence him to prison, but rather probation. As part of that probation, he is required to do counseling (which, incidentally, he has to pay for himself). Counseling and therapy is for the purpose of rehabilitation, and it seems as though rehabilitation would support the idea of speaking openly and confidentially with your therapist. In speaking openly about a communication with his own daughter—a 7-word text message on his birthday thanking her for her text—the therapist decides that he or she must violate what would otherwise be a privileged communication between a patient. That, in turn, led to his probation being violated.

Even when dealing with clients sent away for crimes they didn’t commit for decades, sometimes it is the little things that remind me of how truly broken our system is.