The Burden of Innocence

Today it is exactly two months since the scheduled execution date for Willie Jerome Manning. Then, the very real possibility of Willie losing his life focused our attention and spurred us on to read articles and sign petitions. The FBI and DOJ presumably prioritised Willie’s situation as a matter of life and death when they rapidly alerted officials to significant flaws in their agents’ testimony against him.

Two months on, with no critical deadline before us, but with the summer heat bearing down on Willie’s prison cell, it is perhaps an appropriate time to contemplate the burden of innocence borne year after year by many on death row; and to consider the systemic bias that propels many innocent defendants towards an unjust conviction in the USA.

Clive Stafford Smith’s disturbing book, ‘Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America’, notes this bias in all sections of officialdom involved in US law enforcement and justice. The book’s focus is the case of Khris Maharaj, who was convicted of murder despite evidence of his innocence; but the book ranges further, pointing to the prevalence of similar injustices in many other cases.

It is prosecutors that come under particular scrutiny in Daniel S. Medwed’s paper, ‘The Zeal Deal: Prosecutorial Resistance to Post-Conviction Claims of Innocence’.  Medwed explains that US prosecutors are supposed to be ‘ministers of justice’, but in practice are under considerable pressure to value convictions rather than justice (which must presumably lead to wrongful convictions). According to Medwed, high conviction rates often lead to higher budgets for district attorney offices, and to promotion for prosecutors. And at the post-conviction stage prosecutors fear the undermining of public credibility by the exoneration of an inmate, especially if that exoneration may reveal deliberate prosecutorial and police misconduct.

Medwed notes that the engrained conviction culture in district attorney offices is absorbed by young prosecutors and becomes more established as they gain experience, so that the most experienced prosecutors (i.e. those handling the highest degree felony cases) are the least likely to be troubled by the concept of justice. Instead, they increasingly adopt a gung ho stance, emphasizing their part in protecting the public and securing closure for the victims or their families.

This stance is certainly recognizable in Forest Allgood, prosecutor in both Willie’s cases, who when seeking re-election stated he would ‘take his role as a victim advocate seriously and aggressively fight for your (the victim’s) objectives’ (see Forrest Allgood’s re-election statement.) Similarly, Mississippi Attorney General, Jim Hood, reacted to Willie’s stay of execution with regret that “the victims’ families will have to continue to live this 20-plus-year nightmare” (see report in The Washington Post).

Even among experienced prosecutors there are bound to be variations, so for Willie it must be troubling to know that his prosecutor, Forrest Allgood, has a history not only of securing wrongful convictions, but of resisting defendants’ attempts to demonstrate their innocence (see Radley Balko speaking on video – starting at 8.30 – at AOL On). It is perhaps not surprising that Forrest Allgood won The Agitator’s very first ‘Worst prosecutor of the year Award’ in 2007.

So while it is the possibility of execution that may repel us most about this case, there is far more to Willie’s situation than this. Many innocents on death row feel as if they are living in a grotesque parallel universe where it is impossible to find peace; they say they prefer the prospect of execution to that of living out their lives in prison for a murder they did not commit. For Willie, who has always claimed to be free of guilt, the burden of his innocence must surely be weighing him down as the hot days of summer pass by.

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