Are wrongful convictions our fault?
Okay, confession time. I'm only two episodes into Making a Murderer. You guys, this show is right up my alley and completely perfect for what I'm writing about (wrongful convictions, corrupt justice system, etc.), but between spending three weeks with my family in the US and then hitting the ground running with work and getting back into normal life since we arrived back in Australia, I have had nary a spare moment. That's right, I'm using words like "nary" today. But I will say, even though I haven't really gotten to the part about the murder investigation and trial yet, I'm completely captivated by how much this show is addressing all the issues I have seen in the American justice system since Serial came out and blew our collective minds with the hideous mishandling of Adnan Syed's case.
All of this to say -- I'm getting to it and no spoilers, please.
But also, I'm reading a lot of books as I research all the missteps that go into wrongful convictions occurring -- the vulnerable people who are manipulated, the police officers who are overworked and have been ingrained with the necessity of always covering for one another, the prosecutors who are so tired of seeing guilty men go free on a technicality that they start to break the rules because they've lost faith in the system just like so many of us have.
It's astonishing, really.
I read this quote today by the lawyer who represented Steven Avery, the man around whom Making a Murderer centers: "Our justice system has always been broken because people are broken." I have to agree, and this is a constant struggle for me as an American who has lived in two other developed countries with very different politics and government. Australia and the UK aren't perfect, either, but it feels like the people in them are more aware of their countries' imperfections.
Why can't people admit that we're broken? Why is it so hard to say something is wrong when we can all see that it is?
It isn't unusual for me to have a conversation with one of my American friends or family and hear words like, "Well America is the best country in the world" or "But why should we try doing things that way? America is supposed to be different."
Listen, in a lot of ways, America is an incredible country. It houses multiple stores in nearly every sizeable town where you can walk in and buy a gallon of motor oil, a carton of milk, a set of sheets, and a pair of ear buds all in one stop. Amazon delivers things to your door by drone. By drone, okay?
And it has TRADER JOE'S, everyone. NOBODY can compete with that. Two buck Chuck? Yes please.
The point is, I'm not anti-America. But, you know in those war movies when some dude gets his leg blown off and yet he still tries to crawl out of his foxhole to save another soldier who's already as good as dead, and all his buddies who are smart enough to stay below ground level shout after him, "Don't be a hero"?
Okay, maybe that happened in a movie where the guy goes out and gets wasted and then goes to work hungover the next morning without taking an aspirin. But still.
America is kind of like that guy.
If something is broken, you should acknowledge it's broken and try to fix it before you barge in and take control of someone else's life, like in airplanes when they say you should put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.
That's because not only are we essentially useless to other people when we haven't helped ourselves first, but we're also kind of dangerous. When our justice system grabs someone and puts him in prison to "rehabilitate", we're not really doing him a favor anymore. There are prisons left in America that focus on rehabilitation over punishment, but they are few and far between -- despite the fact that those prisons still see a much lower rate of recidivism that is most likely a direct result of their commitment to helping incarcerated people become useful members of society.
Here's the thing, though. It's super easy to just blame crooked cops and evil prosecutors like they're the scourge of America, when in reality, they're responsible for putting away the right guy, say (hopefully), nine times out of ten. And don't get me wrong, I think it's a heinous thing to do, to put the wrong man in prison -- not only are you destroying his life, but you're also letting the guilty party go free and potentially continue hurting other people.
But wrongful convictions are not all law enforcement's fault. They're not all the judges' fault. Despite popular feelings to the contrary, they're not even all Obama's fault (#thanksObama).
Wrongful convictions are our fault too.
Not just because we vote for the people who end up in office, and often only vote for presidents while neglecting to pay much attention to the state legislators, judges, congressmen, and sheriffs that are on those dockets too. It's our fault because we cry out for this stuff.
I'm reading Just Mercyby Bryan Sanderson at the moment, and it struck me when I got to this page where he's discussing the lead-up to a client of his being wrongfully arrested for the high-profile murder of a young woman:
You can see my note in the margin, there: "Is this partly our fault?"
I think it is. I think that if we're going to hold police accountable for putting the wrong people in prison, then at the very least we should hold ourselves accountable for pressuring them to put someone -- anyone -- away for a heinous crime just because it terrifies us to think of a monster running free.
Police officers are in that unfortunate class of profession, much like doctors and teachers and sound booth guys, who are never really thought about until something goes horribly wrong. Maybe if we as a society start showing up, taking ownership, and letting people in the justice system know that we want change and we're willing to sacrifice to get there -- maybe then things will actually change.
Featured image credit: Derek Gavey / Flickr/ 2011