Questionable Convictions Result from Zealous Prosecutors

By Angelo Falcone

There are many state prisoners serving time in prison for crimes they did not commit. Often they were either wrongly convicted or “overcharged” by prosecutors with more severe crimes than of which they are guilty. For instance, prosecutors overcharge defendants with murder instead of manslaughter or attempted murder instead of assault and battery, regardless of the facts.

It has cost California taxpayers more than $220 million, adjusted to 2013 dollar values, to overturn 692 wrongful convictions from 1989 to 2012, as reported by San Quentin News in June 2016.

According to the University of Michigan Law School, “2015 was a record-breaking year for exonerations in the United States.” Earlier this year, the university released its annual National Registry of Exonerations and reported that in 2015 there were 149 exonerations in “29 states and in the District of Columbia, plus three federal cases and one exoneration in Guam.”

DNA exonerations accounted for 24 percent of all reported exonerations in the Registry and 59 percent of the exonerations in 2015 were for violent crimes: 39 percent were for homicide, 10 percent were for sex crimes, and another 10 percent were for other violent crimes such as attempted murder, assault, and kidnapping. “A record 27 exonerations in 2015 were for convictions based on false confessions, and more than 80 percent of them were homicides.”

However the number of exonerations did not actually reflect the frequency of false convictions. Rather, these were found “in large part because of the efforts of prosecutorial Conviction Integrity Units” or CIUs. CIUs are a division of a prosecutor’s office that works to prevent, identify, and correct false convictions. There are only 24 CIUs in the United States among the hundreds of thousands of prosecutor offices.

As to overcharging, the Criminal Law Handbook, 11th Edition, says that prosecutors often initially charge defendants with more serious or multiple offenses expecting to reduce or drop some as bargaining chips. Because a great many plea bargains occur when the prosecutor agrees to drop one or more of the charges facing a defendant in exchange for a guilty or no contest plea on one or more of the remaining charges, prosecutors tend to charge high in the beginning. Defense attorneys term this practice “overcharging.” By filing as many charges as possible, the prosecution improves its chances of conviction should the evidence to support any particular charge not pan out. However, when it comes to the “politics of overcharging” many critics argue that both defense lawyers and prosecutors are involved in a cynical game of overcharging. If prosecutors file high, then defense lawyers can appear to be getting defendants a deal by convincing prosecutors to lower the charges.

In Plea Bargaining: Critical Issues and Common Practices by William F. McDonald, published by the U.S. DOJ National Institute of Justice, one prosecutor said about overcharging: “We get what we want; the defendant thinks his attorney is great, and the attorney gets his money.”

Asked on the Line polled the men on the mainline with an informal survey and asked, “Do you believe other men in prison (friends and non-friends) when they claim to be innocent of the crime? The men polled were given the option of answering “Yes, always; No, never; Depends on the Crime or Depends on something else” and finally, the men polled were asked if they claimed innocence or not.

Twenty-two percent (22%) of the men polled would believe that a friend or acquaintance in prison is innocent but only eleven percent (11%) would believe the innocence claim of an unknown prisoner.

Seventeen percent (17%) of the men polled would not believe a claim of innocence from anyone in prison.

Twenty-eight percent (28%) of the men polled claim that it would depend on the crime for someone they know, and 33 percent for inmates they do not know.

Thirty-three percent (33%) of the men polled stated it would depend on “other” factors for other inmates they know and 39 percent for inmates they do not know. Other factors included: circumstances of the crime, what they know of the person, tangible and direct evidence, the person’s character, and witnesses. A few of the men claimed it would depend on the “facts of the case,” but did not indicate facts according to whom.

For the 28 percent that answered that it depended on the crime—for inmates they know—men on the mainline would not believe a claim of innocence for crimes like sexual assault, kidnapping or sex crimes against children, especially if the child makes the accusation. When it came to other inmates that the men do not know, the men in blue would not believe a claim of innocence when it came to murder of a spouse, girlfriend, rape victim, or child, nor crimes such as kidnapping or child molestation.

Finally, 11 percent of the mainline inmates polled at San Quentin claim that they were wrongly convicted, 44 percent claimed they were overcharged, six percent (6%) claim they were convicted under California’s felony-murder rule—which holds participants responsible for any homicide that occurs during the commission of a felony, regardless of who killed the victim or how—and 39 percent of the mainline inmates polled stated that they are guilty and take full responsibility for their crimes.

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