Dark Blots

Thankful for Progress . . . But More Needs to be Done

There are few things more sad than people being convicted wrongly.  There are few things more provocative than the state doing little or nothing to right the wrong.  The “corrective” being deployed in some jurisdictions is to set up an independent review authority which can go to work to examine further and test unsafe convictions. 

The state of North Carolina, in the United States, provides one example:

A 70-year-old man was freed from prison Friday, after a panel of judges found that he was wrongly convicted in the stabbing deaths of a mother and daughter nearly four decades ago.  The judges heard from a DNA expert who said none of the evidence collected in the case matched Joseph Sledge. A district attorney apologized to Sledge and promised to reopen the case into the 1976 slayings.  “The system has made a mistake,” district attorney Jon David said. “The wrong man is in prison.” . . . .

Sledge was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in the September 1976 slayings of Josephine Davis and her daughter, Aileen.  They were found stabbed to death in their home in Elizabethtown, a day after Sledge had escaped from a prison work farm where he was serving a four-year sentence for larceny.

Sledge is the eighth person exonerated after the state set up the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, the only state-run investigative agency of its kind. The commission found there was enough doubt to review Sledge’s case, and the state Supreme Court appointed the three judges to hear it.  In addition to fingerprints, DNA and hair gathered at the scene that didn’t belong to Sledge, a key jailhouse informant, Herman Baker, signed an affidavit in 2013 recanting trial testimony. Baker said he lied at the 1978 trial after being promised leniency in his own drug case and he said he’d been coached by authorities on what to say.  The commission began operation in 2007. It has completed reviews of about 1,500 cases.

The nonprofit Innocence Project said there have been 325 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S.

New Zealand does not have an “Unsafe Convictions” review system.  It badly needs one.  It is far too easy for a small-village judicial system to close ranks, as each participant looks to his or her career prospects, mutual loyalties, and favours owed.  Barrister Simon Mount has been arguing for an independent review commission in New Zealand based on the examples already operating successfully in other countries.

A leading Auckland barrister is supporting calls for a special legal commission to be set up in New Zealand to investigate allegations of miscarriages of justice.  Some sections of the legal sector are making a new push for such an organisation, after the Privy Council quashed murder convictions against Mark Lundy for the deaths of his wife and daughter in Palmerston North 13 years ago.

Barrister Simon Mount said New Zealand could emulate Scotland with its Criminal Cases Review Commission, which is fully independent of the Crown and can make its own inquiries.  He said legitimate questions remained about some convictions after the standard criminal process has ended, and an independent commission is the best way to investigate these.  Mr Mount said the Scottish system had performed well in looking into controversial cases quite swiftly and at a relatively modest cost.

The NZ Law Society supports the setting up of such a commission. 

One of the gravest miscarriages of justice is that which involves Peter Ellis, convicted of child molestation in the Christchurch creche case.  It remains a dark blot on recent New Zealand judicial history. 
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