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Rodney Roberts’s story is horrific: He spent 17 years locked up in total, between seven years in prison and then 10 years confined in a mental hospital in conditions virtually the same as prison in that it was a cell and was run by the Department of Corrections. Why? He was railroaded into pleading guilty to a crime that he didn’t commit, then was civilly committed because he stood on his innocence rather than admitting guilt and thus, in the eyes of the “experts,” was considered a sexually dangerous predator unable to make progress in therapy.
He was railroaded by the police, a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, had a terrible public defender, and was let down by the court system. The police falsely claimed that the victim had identified him; the prosecutor accepted this at face value without interviewing the victim herself; and the defense attorney did the same, falsely telling Rodney that the victim was ready to come in and testify. All of these things resulted in Rodney being convicted and given a life sentence. Facing that fate, his attorney told him he should plead guilty and that the state would drop the rape case so the conviction would be for kidnapping only and he would get a seven-year prison sentence. He would be out in two years.
Fearful of getting a life sentence, Rodney pled guilty.
While an innocent defendant pleading guilty is tragic, it is not rare. A recent article by Judge Rackoff estimates that 10% of defendants who plead guilty are innocent.
What would make an innocent person plead guilty?
Police Misconduct: Police may fabricate evidence, or hide evidence of innocence, or refuse to document witness interviews because the witness is not saying what they want them to, which results in the defense attorney not understanding the full picture and advising the client to plead guilty because they are going to be convicted.
Prosecutorial Misconduct: The prosecutor may claim to have evidence that doesn’t exist; withhold evidence; threaten witnesses with prosecution or removal of children; or they may purposely overcharge defendants.
Bad Lawyering: A major cause of wrongful conviction. The caliber of lawyering one receives if they can afford to hire private counsel as opposed to what the poor receive via a public defender is like the difference between night and day. Public defenders may not bother to confirm the existence of evidence. Savvy defendants know that public defenders, in general, are not very good, which increases the risk of being found guilty, and thus a pragmatic, damage-control type of decision is made to plead guilty.
Reforms needed to prevent wrongful convictions caused by bad lawyering include:
One statewide system, which would allow oversight, quality control, and the implementation of standards. Presently, if a public defender renders ineffective representation, they remain in place to do so again.
Limitation of caseload It is not unusual for one public defender to represent 100 defendants at once. How can a lawyer handling that many cases devote the proper amount of time needed to ensure an accurate and fair outcome?
Equal financial resources and manpower Both the public defender and prosecutors office should have the same amount of personnel and funds for investigators and experts to assist in case preparation.
Equal pay for both sides Currently, prosecutors make much more money than public defenders. Equal pay means that the best talent won’t go to one side or into private practice.
Lateralized representation One attorney should represent the defendant from the beginning of the case until the end, as opposed to what happens in some jurisdictions: a merry-go-round of different attorneys representing the defendant at each early proceeding until the first major pre-trial hearing. This is a disadvantage to the defendant because they have to keep retelling their story and building rapport with each attorney, thus giving the prosecutor a leg up. By contrast, the same prosecutor stays with a case from beginning to end.
Beyond being frightened and defrauded into pleading guilty to a crime he did not commit, Rodney was wronged in an additional way: Despite being promised that he would be out in two years and having the sexual abuse charge dismissed as part of the plea agreement, the Department of Corrections and its mental health workers took the position that he had committed sexual abuse, too, merely because he had been charged with it. This led them to their inflexible, unreasonable position that he would have to take and complete the sex offender program, which had an explicit guilt-admission requirement. That is wrong on so many levels. Firstly, that is an example of one part of the government not respecting a deal made by another part of the government. Secondly, what about the presumption of innocence? But like so frequently happens to defendants, when it is inconvenient to respect their constitutional and civil rights, they are ignored, overlooked, or an exception is made, in an end-justifies-the-means rationale. That approach leads to a slippery slope, with the end result being that innocent people will eventually get caught in the web.
Beyond that particular defendant, though, in a larger sense, the rights and liberties of all Americans are threatened when that happens. As the immortal saying by Pastor Niemöller goes, as can be found in the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Also, that approach does not take into account that the criminal justice system sometimes makes mistakes and innocent people are wrongfully charged with sex crimes.
Civil commitment, which Rodney experienced for 10 years, unable, according to the “experts,” to make any progress because he couldn’t admit that he had a problem, adds an additional horrific twist in Rodney’s story. That school of thought, of course, borrows much from the noted AA Twelve Steps, in which admitting that one has a problem is the first step, a mandatory prerequisite to overcoming addiction/one’s problems. This rationale is also utilized with respect to those that have mental illnesses: if the patient can’t see that they have a problem, that is simply further proof that a problem exists, that the patient’s judgment is impaired, and therefore an intervention is needed to protect the patient and society.
The problem with imposing this inflexible, one-size-fits-all approach to the criminal justice system is that sometimes the people asserting their innocence are not at all in denial, but in fact are 100% innocent. Not everybody caught up in this situation will be exonerated; their only way out may be via parole. It is unseemly for the state to require a false guilty admission in order to complete the sex-offender training program in order to be released, and then, if they are not released and are instead committed civilly, to then require guilt admission.
Should the state be in the position of encouraging prisoners to lie in order to have a chance at freedom, albeit in a limited role?
Civil commitment poses a risk to the wrongfully convicted and should be abolished. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 1,621 exonerations have been recorded thus far, with more research on the way. Many of those exonerated were wrongfully convicted of sex offenses. Too many times, mistakes are made. It also allows the state to take away liberty even after a prison sentence has been completed. It is a slippery slope to allow incarceration/detention based upon predicted future behavior. If a prisoner is indeed determined to be a risk–and we need a better criteria for determining that than what we currently have–other measures exist to protect the community, such as ankle monitors with house arrest, and increased supervision.
The lawyer representing the attorney general’s office now has on their conscience that they prolonged Rodney’s ordeal by civilly committing him and repeatedly having the order repeated. The court, which kept ordering renewal of the commitment, also bears some of the moral blame. In addition, the court is supposed to really require the government, and hence the state-appointed experts, to prove why a defendant represents future danger, heavily scrutinize what they say and make them really prove it. A hearing is supposed to be an objective proceeding with the burden upon the state; not a proceeding in which whatever the state wants to do is simply signed off on with very little review. A court is the last bulwark between a wronged citizen and another branch of the government. Certainly the court was not functioning that way for Rodney. They fact that even after he was exonerated he had to return back to the mental hospital for civil proceedings before he could be released is ridiculous and somewhat reminiscent of the Keystone Kops. Similarly, there was a total lack of regard for Rodney’s wife in that prison officials did not inform her that he was not going to be released but was instead going to be transferred to the mental hospital. A several-hour trip each way via public transportation could have been avoided.
Rodney was released with nothing, with no social services provided, very reminiscent of releasing an animal back out into the wild. That is morally reprehensible. All exonerees should be provided with housing; cost of living expenses; mental health services; doctor and dental care; job training and job placement; classes on technology; public transportation access; and classes on technology. It’s simply the right thing to do, and it is the government’s moral responsibility. New Jersey’s compensation statute explicitly bans exonerees from being compensated if their wrongful conviction was caused by a false confession or through a guilty plea. This law makes no sense. If someone has been wrongfully convicted, they should be compensated, period. Nobody is going to purposely get themselves wrongfully convicted simply to later exonerate themselves to then be in position to sue. Freedom has no price … there is no amount of money that is worth giving up one’s freedom.
“The Security Brief” Takeaways from This Story:
Personal Level: Defendant (1) If you are innocent, do not plead guilty; (2) Stay on top of your lawyer! Make him or her tell you what the evidence is against you, ask what the strategy is going to be, and make sure that either they or their investigators try to speak to the witnesses against you. Victims and witnesses do not have to speak to a defense attorney, but they are not prohibited from doing so, either.
Personal Level: Witness (1) If you are a witness, there is no reason you should shun speaking to the defense attorney just as you speak with the prosecutor. Had the victim in Rodney’s case not spoken to his attorney, she wouldn’t have learned he was wrongfully incarcerated and he would still be in prison today.
Personal Level: Prosecutor (1) Scrutinize the case police bring you and speak to the witness yourself; (2) Remember that you are supposed to be a Minister of Justice, not someone who simply tries to obtain or preserve convictions.
Personal Level: Attorney General Do not seek civil commitment based on a defendant’s assertion of innocence.
Criminal Court Level (1) If the victim of a crime says that the defendant is not the one who committed the crime, that should end the case; (2) If a defendant has been exonerated, then they should be released immediately.
Civil Court Level (1) Do not order civil commitment or renewal of same merely because the defendant is asserting innocence; (2) Really scrutinize and require experts who state that a defendant poses a future danger and thus should be held civilly to prove why that is so.
Legislative/Governmental Level (1) The public defender system needs to be overhauled: (A) one statewide system, (B) equal resources for both side, (C) lowering of caseloads to a sensible level, (D) equal pay, (E) one attorney from the beginning until the end. (2) Abolish the civil commitment law; (3) Honor deals, and respect the presumption of innocence until proven guilty; (4) Assertion of innocence should not be held against prisoners … sometimes they actually are innocent; (5) Exonerees should receive social services upon release via exoneration; (6) New Jersey should modify its compensation law to include everybody who has been wrongfully convicted, even those who have given a false confession or pled guilty; (7) If a defendant has been exonerated, they should be released immediately, not sent back to a mental institution, because the whole basis for the commitment was the underlying criminal conviction.