Sunday, April 22, 2007

'Not guilty,' said the jury; 'go to prison,' said the parole board - examining the limits of eyewitness testimony

I'd missed a fascinating investigative story on parole revocations by Chuck Lindell in the Austin Statesman last week ("For prison inmate, Jimmy Page, a 'not guilty' verdict did not mean freedom," April 15), who found that:
Last year, 91 Texas parolees were returned to prison after being charged with a new crime, even though the charges against them were later dropped or they were acquitted in court.
That's a relatively small number, but the idea that anyone goes to prison because of conduct for which a jury found them not guilty, to me, cannot be justified. It happens because juries must find guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt," while at parole revocation hearings only a "preponderance of the evidence" standard (50.1%) must be met.

Juries were America's Founding Fathers' attempt to inject an element of democracy into the criminal justice process - the idea that their decision might be trumped by the myopic bureaucrats at the parole board frankly makes my skin crawl.

In the case profiled by Lindell, a jury acquitted the fellow of murder, but his parole for a previous murder was revoked on the sole word of the investigating officer. A child victim had identified multiple people during different lineup procedures, but the investigator told the parole board the man was "guilty as homemade sin." That was 20 years ago.

The shortcomings of eyewitness testimony in this case point to the need for significant reforms to ensure fairness and accuracy. Too often, it turns out, victims and witnesses simply identify the wrong person. Wrote Lindell ("Who's the real bad guy? Eyewitness testimony makes it hard to tell," April 15):

A growing body of research has improved the scientific understanding of witness testimony, shattering long-held beliefs about the reliability of first-hand observation.

The results have gained credibility as DNA testing has exonerated 198 inmates nationally, 152 of whom were wrongly convicted based on witness testimony, according to the Innocence Project, which pursues DNA exonerations.

Today, it's known that fear plays a key role in impeding the ability to form and process memories, Wells said.

"The natural tendency for all humans is fight or flight from fear. All of one's mental resources get devoted to survival, and forming a detailed memory of things around you does not help you survive," Wells said.

Though conventional wisdom would suggest being stabbed would produce an indelible memory of the attacker's face, "in fact, it's the other way around," Wells said. "Fear provides very, very unfavorable conditions for forming any kind of reliable memory."

Youth is another factor: "Kids do better if they are trying to ID another kid than an adult," Wells said.

Studies show that young children do relatively well in recognizing a culprit in a photo or physical lineup.

But in lineups that contain no culprit, they also are much more likely than adults to choose a suspect anyway.

Such flaws in eyewitness testimony, especially by kids, are one of the main reasons I oppose bills that would allow in children's hearsay testimony and give the death penalty on child molestation charges. There have simply been too many cases where such testimony turned out to be mistaken; more checks and balances are needed to ensure innocent people don't receive society's harshest punishments.

Via Tom Kirkendall, who thinks the parole "process is ripe for a constitutional challenge."

11 comments:

sunray's wench said...

Texas simply HAS to stop this happening!

Would people lose their jobs (I'm talking COs, probations officers etc) if visible protests were held? Days of action? Work to rule? There has to be something you can do.

Anonymous said...

Sunray's Wench...if it were only that easy I would lead the choir at any given parole office or prison unit. I've met some excellent PO's and I've met some that their whole world revolved around the word "revocation." The good ones usually move on and go to a more rewarding job position while the not so good ones continue to degrade and dehumanize their parolees, hoping for the day they can be part of the process of sending them back to prison where they will also be degraded and dehumanized.
Least we all forget, even if the PO sits in the local hearing and says the parolee should NOT return to prison, the illustrious demi-gods and goddesses sitting on the Big Brother Parole Board have the final say. I can almost see the saliva running down their chins as they get the chance to return a parolee to prison so they can cry, "Aha! Recidivism again!" I have personally heard a parole officer say, while in an angry rage over a D.A.'s decision not to charge another felony on a parolee, "Just watch...he is going back to prison. I will see to that!" Kind of makes you warm and tingly inside, doesn't it.
I've asked a parole officer in charge of tracking parolees on monitors if there is ever a problem with the monitors. The answer was NO, they NEVER have a problem with the monitors, only the parolees. (We can't take into consideration these same monitors are man-made and are therefore subject to error) I watched a parolee almost vomit in fear as his monitor just popped off his ankle one day. Thank God for a quick thinking mother and a parole supervisor who stayed at the office after hours to fix the problem. Others have not been so lucky when their monitor popped off....they were returned to prison by their over zealous PO.
Until the Texas Legislators stand up and say that enough is enough, and unless they provide Texas with an oversight committee to police our broken parole board, the prisons will continue to be over crowded with parolees back on a revocation...be it new crime for which they were found innocent or be it a technical violation that could have been remedied at the local parole office level. Until the power this parole board exacts on prisoners or parolees comes under some form of scrutiny, some form of oversight, and most definitely some form of accountability, we are going to continue to have full prisons and they are going to continue to destroy lives farther.
....and you don't even want to get me started on CO's.
Bottom line...the parole board is broken and until our legislatures, who are elected officials, take this parole board to task and stop the insanity we will continue to see lives destroyed, we will continue to see people denied parole over and over again, no mater how rehabilitated they have made themselves, and we will continue to have over crowded prisons.

frqbi said...

There are times, however, that this result is part of a compromise. The State agrees to dismiss a charge that it could prove contingent on the parolee agreeing to revocation.

In many cases, this means that the parolee gets out of County (a place few like to be - especially if rural!). The County avoids the cost of the trial, and, in the long run, the parolee is out faster.

This kind of agreement is not an effort to get around jury trials or to bypass justice; it is the result of understaffed offices and the simple fact that no prosecutor's office can try every case filed.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@frqbi - Good point. I can see where that might happen sometimes with dismissed charges, but I can't imagine ANY situation where the parole board is justified overturning a jury verdict.

Anonymous said...

To frqbi....what you are,in fact saying is, the country saves the cost of a trial and the compromise is the freedom of the parolee. Seems that everyone wins but the parolee who is sent back to the dungeon, who has lost ALL street time, and who will remain in prison until hell freezes over or his/her sentence is done day for day. He/she becomes part of the recidivism numbers that the parole board loves to cram down the throats of anyone who complains about the repetative excuses they give for denying parole. Trust me, once TDCJ gets a parolee back on a parole revocation, they chew nails to keep them for as long as they can. Thus, the county saved their money, the parole board got their wish, and the only one that has to suffer is the convicted felon who will rot in the abyss called TDCJ.
..and to our good friend Grits,when it comes to justified; there is nothing justified about the parole board in this state.

frqbi said...

There are times - and situations - in which it is better in the long run for a parolee to have a revocation than yet another conviction on his criminal record. Presuming that the individual did commit the intervening offense (which does happen at times), is it better to be convicted AND revoked, or simply revoked?

Anonymous said...

frqbi..not trying to be combative because I think we are on the same page; however, once you are an ex-felon the treatment you receive in the freeworld is as bad for one conviction or five convictions. If the new conviction is longer that what is left on the first sentence the revocation is a moot point.
I do agree that some felons do reoffend, without question. But many are sent back on technical violations, not new crimes.
Also, if they are charged with a crime, found NOT guilty, and the parole board still rovokes them....well, don't you see something wrong with this picture??

billt said...

now i KNOW i was right to turn down parole and do my time flat!!

sunray's wench said...

Bottom line is, if someone is found innocent, they should not do any extra time for the charge. The Parole Board should not have that power, and I cant believe that they are allowed to get away with it.

And inmate sent back to prison for something he is found not guilty of is likely to be having a considerable amount of bad hair days, and thus could be a danger to COs, so it's in the COs interests that it doesnt happen as well. Its not just a probation issue.

Anonymous said...

My brother was found not guilty for a robbery and it was witness that stated he had nothing to do with the robbery but the boy that was with him did. My brother did go to jail for robbery 5 years ago and served his time but this one he was not involved with. Now the jury found him not guilty but the judge to it upon himself to handle his V.O.P and gave him 20 years for violation of probation and he had another judge that suppose to have handled that case and another public defender. Can anyone point my family in the right direction of who to talk to.

Anonymous said...

My brother was found not guilty for a robbery and it was witness that stated he had nothing to do with the robbery but the boy that was with him did. My brother did go to jail for robbery 5 years ago and served his time but this one he was not involved with. Now the jury found him not guilty but the judge to it upon himself to handle his V.O.P and gave him 20 years for violation of probation and he had another judge that suppose to have handled that case and another public defender. Can anyone point my family in the right direction of who to talk to. Please email me at bwhitelm@yahoo.com