Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Eye spy.

Thirty years. Thirty years is a career. Thirty years is a man in his prime. Thirty years is the age past which Baby Boomers vowed no one would be trusted. Thirty years is a storied marriage. Thirty Years is how long it took 17th Century Catholics and Protestants to kill 12 million of one another in the eponymous war. Thirty years is longer than half the population of the United States has been alive.

Thirty years is how long Cornelius Dupree Jr. spent confined in the Texas prison system for a crime he did not commit.
Consider the exquisite horror of that. Spend an hour thinking about it. Mr. Dupree had more than a quarter million hours in which to do so after he was wrongly convicted for a 1979 abduction, robbery and rape. Or, if you prefer, think of the worst day in your life. Consider how that day stacks up against a day in a prison system widely recognized as among the nation’s most vile. Mr. Dupree had just about 11,000 days of that.

Mr. Dupree is just a year older than I. When he went to prison, I was blasting through my sophomore year at college, skipping classes, chasing girls, drinking beer and gallivanting through wild Kentucky caves. During the time Mr. Dupree has been fighting for his freedom and, one presumes, fighting merely to survive, I have had two marriages, fathered two sons, come to Jesus, enjoyed success in two careers and, more to the immediate point, gone where I damn well pleased, when I damn well pleased.

In what must be the most gracious and galactic understatement ever recorded, Mr. Dupree said “it’s a joy to be free again” when a Texas judge sent him home after DNA evidence established that he did not commit the crime.*

How had he landed in prison? So far as I can tell, unlike some of the more than 250 defendants who have so far been exonerated by just the Innocence Project alone, there are no allegations of knowing misconduct by police or prosecutors. Instead, as happens more often than folks outside the justice system realize, Mr. Dupree lost more than half his life simply because the crime victim misidentified him. This phenomenon is but a reflection of the larger problem of “eyewitness testimony,” where the sometimes fatal danger lies in the gulf between how reliable such testimony really is and how reliable jurors think it is. (I leave it for you to consider the implications of prosecutors who know the weaknesses of eyewitnesses, yet advocate it as the sine qua non of evidence before jurors and fight to exclude experts on the topic.)

Of course, it is not only the Mr. Duprees of the world who suffer for this, although their suffering is most obvious and acute. The victims whose assailants have gone free, the families of the wrongly convicted, the subsequent victims of those assailants who go unpursued as other pay for their crimes, even the witnesses who learn their flawed testimony sent a man to prison for decades** suffer as well. The universal victim is the honor, trust and dignity of our entire justice system.

* He’s been out of prison on parole since July, but the hearing this week released him from any obligation to the corrections system.

** Please learn about the amazing, tragic and – at last – redemptive story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. She identified him as her rapist and he went to prison for eleven years before DNA evidence proved she was wrong. Cotton managed to forgive Thompson and Thompson managed to forgive herself. Together they have become a single, powerful voice of reason, appearing and writing together about these issues.


  1. For me, it's impossible not to feel great sadness that our legal system, though designed with checks and balances, but nonetheless operated by eminently fallible (and in some cases, craven) humans, imprisoned an innocent man for so long.

    On the other hand, the dirtbag who killed Deputy Sheriff Brandon Coates here in Orange County a few weeks ago had just served seven years in prison - clearly not enough. And for our local paper's bleating about "being tough on crime," and "longer incarceration" being "unworkable" and "unaffordable," I say - for the pathological animals that get caught up and [rightfully] convicted, it's working just fine.

    Deputy Coates's killer, while in prison, killed no law enforcement officer, or anyone else. Only when he was released, did our community lose a fine young man and LEO.

    When it comes to keeping killers and other violent criminals off the streets traveled by civilized men and women, whatever the financial cost, it's more than worth it.

    That said, perhaps advances in technology will make DNA evidence faster, and universally used to convict, or to clear, suspects. Would that Mr. Dupree, who the state has wronged beyond any ability to make up for, had such technology available for his own defense 30 years ago.

    There is a balance to be achieved - it's one that we can, and must, find.

  2. I agree in every respect, Buck.

    A good friend is a LEO in Orange County and was caught up in the Deputy Coates incident and later attended the service. I have written here about the devastation caused by the loss of a lawman killed in the line of duty.

    As for Mr. Dupree, the upshot is no less than this: We have to use everything at our disposal to seek the truth, and to follow the truth fearlessly. Especially when we are talking about the power of the state being wielded against the individual, our zeal has to be reined in by all due care.

    As you say, the system is simply the aggregate of all the humans, good and bad, who occupy it. So it will necessarily fail from time to time. You can only hope that stories like that of Deputy Coates, on the one hand, and Mr. Dupree, on the other, make an impact on everyone involved.

  3. Sorry, Buck. There is no "on the other hand" in circumstances as vile as wrongful conviction, particularly when abetted by a system that places a higher value on "conviction" than accuracy. Well said Sheepdog, as always.