The Politics of Wrongful Convictions

To state the obvious, I am a lawyer.  The work I do for clients is typically in the courts, before judges, and within the judicial system.  I am not a politician or a lobbyist, and for the most part I don’t seek political solutions for clients.  That it is the judicial system that provides remedies for the wrongfully convicted is usually a good thing, because it’s only the judicial system that provides any route to success for people who are frequently unpopular, sometimes friendless, sometimes truly despised by nearly everyone but the few people who have stuck with them during the years they have stood wrongfully convicted.  I am always gratified and sometimes overwhelmed by the joyous celebrations that accompany our clients’ exonerations, and the public outcry of people truly wishing our clients well when they finally get to go home, but it can be easy to forget that sometimes, even the day before someone is formally released, the public outcry and public sentiment goes the other way.  This is why, as much as our criminal justice system has failed many of my clients, I am profoundly appreciative that the United States’ system of justice provides a route for even a person who is hated, powerless, who is viewed as a murderer or a rapist, to ask for the relief they deserve.

It’s true too, though, that our judicial system is part of the American political system.  Judges and prosecutors are elected in many places, or at least appointed by elected officials.  Supreme Court appointments, the body that interprets the Constitution and the public body that maybe has the biggest impact on the powerless, are a political issue.  It was Congress that passed (and a president who ultimately signed) the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which has had as big of an impact on access to federal habeas relief as anything the judiciary ever did in this area.  It is state legislators who have passed bills giving people access to post-conviction DNA testing, and who have decided how to structure post-conviction procedures and therefore how much access to potential relief prisoners will have in various states.

In Chicago, wrongful convictions have formed part of this political cycle.  These issues have impacted local elections and have been a topic of conversation as people decide for whom they should vote.  It is my hope, regardless of what candidate or party you support, that as you think about how you’re going to vote in your primary or general election, you take into account the ways candidates can impact the wrongfully convicted, and how these political choices will help or harm people seeking justice in this country.  We give the wrongfully convicted the best shot in the courts when we supported elected officials who also want to be fair to this group of people.  We prevent wrongful convictions when we vote for candidates who are themselves committed to structural reform of our deeply flawed criminal justice system.  When we have elections, these topics need to be part of the conversation so that candidates know the public cares about these things and so that candidates have to take a position on these issues and are held accountable.

Sometimes as a lawyer I am amazed and humbled by all the power I don’t have – what we do in court for clients can be very limited in the grand scheme of things.  As I said, I’m not a politician.  I’m not a legislator.  I’m not a lobbyist.  As a lawyer, I will do everything in my power in the courts to assist clients.  As a private citizen, I’m in the same boat as everyone else who cares about wrongful convictions – I can inform myself about the candidates, make sure I vote, and make sure I convey to elected officials what I expect of them in this area.  As this election cycle continues over the summer and into the fall, I hope that everyone else who cares about wrongful convictions is doing the same.