Monday, August 18, 2008

Why wouldn’t innocence 'presumed' by criminal courts be 'actual'?

I'm going to be posting some over at the Innocence Project of Texas' blog (regular readers know I began working for them as a policy consultant a couple of months ago), and wanted to point Grits readers to an item I wrote there about a case of first impression pending at the Austin Court of Appeals regarding whether cases overturned on direct appeal qualify for compensation under Texas' wrongful convictions statutes, see "Splitting hairs on innocence compensaton claims: If unconvicted defendants are presumed innocent, why isn’t that innocence 'actual'?"

The Austin appellate court declared only habeas appeals qualify for compensation, reversing a district court ruling that a defendant whose conviction was overturned on appeal because of insufficiency of evidence could pursue compensation under Chapter 103 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code. (Here’s the opinion by a three judge panel (pdf); the defense has requested an en banc hearing of the full Third Court.)

At issue: "why shouldn’t the innocence that’s 'presumed' by criminal law be considered 'actual' innocence? Isn’t that a distinction without a difference?" See the full post.

BLOGVERSATION: Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice takes up the question.


Anonymous said...

The obvious answer is that the two types of defendants are not similarly situated. Not even close.

If a person who is actually, factually innocent spends time in prison for a crime they did not commit through no fault of their own (for example, they did not falsely confess to get a friend or co-actor off or because they thought they would get a lighter sentence if they confessed or for whatever reason), that is a tragedy because an innocent person has been deprived of their liberty. For that tragedy, the actually innocent person should be compensated.

If a person who is actually, factually guilty walks because of a lack of evidence on appeal (after a trial court and possibly jury found sufficient evidence), that is a whole different kind of tragedy. The person is legally entitled to their freedom if the evidence at trial is not legally sufficient. Rightly so. They are one of the nine guilty who go free so that we do not wrongly imprison the one. But to pay that person money when there is no evidence of abuse of the process by the state and there is no reason to believe the person is factually innocent? No. The tragedy in that case is that a guilty person went free. To pay such a person is an insult to society, to the criminal's actual victim, and to the actually, factually innocent defendant. Indeed, it may put the public back in danger. Society has already paid a high price for the release of the person, but for the preservation of liberty of the innocent who might otherwise be convicted if the burden of proof was lightened.

The presumption of innocence is a pretrial starting point for the jury, not a post-trial right when the rules of trial require acquittal for reasons other than factual innocence.

Do not demean the actually factually innocent by putting them on the same level as a factually guilty person who managed to elude justice, whether through their own destruction or tampering of the evidence, random luck, good lawyering, disagreement of the courts, or by a non-malicious failure of the state or jury.

The man who was innocent of rape but spent time in prison deserves compensation. The man who committed rape but got off on appeal does not.

They are not the same.

Soronel Haetir said...

Questions of compensation aside, it bothers me that there would be even a marginal fraction of inmates winning on inadequacy of evidence grounds. If the evidence isn't there the trial judge should say so and dismiss the case when the proper motion is made, as it always is.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:28, who said the fellow in this case is factually guilty? What reason do you have to think so?

What about the man who DIDN'T commit the crime, who pled not guilty and maintained innocence throughout, but is falsely convicted, and gets out on appeal? That's the fact scenario claimed here, not a guilty person pursuing compensation as you describe. Should there be a distinction made because he won is freedom on direct appeal instead of via habeas? If so, on what basis? Nothing says that in the law.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Soronel, I agree with you and that's one of the reasons I think compensation is justified - it creates a disincentive for such decisions by judges and prosecutors to push through cases that should be dismissed. We're not talking about a lot of cases, but where it happens, the innocence presumption stands when it's done and nowhere is that brand of innocence defined separately from any other type. It's a rebuttable presumption, and if the state does not rebut it, you remain innocent.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 9:28 makes a logical well thought out argument, but what about the fact that Chapter 103 allows compensation for persons who are pardoned? So, we will give money to someone who had some kind of in with the Governor and got a pardon, but not someone who was PERHAPS innocent, where the the COA has said the state did not meet their burden of proof and therefore finds factual insuffiency. And in Young it was the worst kind of "factual insuffiency" A CI, probably working off a case, without adequate corroborating evidence. The state knows that is not sufficient, and they went forward anyway. They cheated, they lost. Go figure

Anonymous said...

I would think someone working for the Innocence Project would understand the nuanced meaning of the term actual innocence.

The term was put into heavy rotation by Innocence Project types back when they were first seeking DNA exonerations but the appeals courts were turning them away because they had "preserved no error" for appeal.

Doesn't this sound familiar: "But your honor, this man is innocent, no really he is ACTUALLY innocent, this is not just another argument technicality I mean he really truly actually did not do the rape and the DNA test proves it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ 3:39 who writes, "I would think someone working for the Innocence Project would understand the nuanced meaning of the term actual innocence."

I certainly understand the distinction you're making, but how do you know the guy wasn't actually innocent? He says he was and the state didn't prove he wasn't. We do know, however, that he went to prison for the error.

In the narrow context of cases overturned for factual insufficiency (a relative rarity), when the presumption of innocence was simply never really overcome but the defendant was just wrongfully imprisoned, I think the distinction you and the appellate court want to make doesn't apply the way it might if we were talking about, e.g., incriminating evidence excluded on appeal.

Scott Greenfield put it well: "When a court determines that the evidence of guilt is insufficient, that means that the prosecution has failed to satisfy its burden of rebutting the presumption. It means that the defendant is restored to his position of actual innocence. He is innocent, totally and completely and beyond question, innocent. To say otherwise is to create a non-existent legal purgatory, that places the burden of proof on the defendant. There is not now, nor has there ever been, an obligation of a person against whom an accusation has been levied to prove the accusation false."

Anonymous said...

In criminal courts you are either guilty or not guilty.

In civil court you can be partially liable.

Perhaps some of the friction here is due to the intersection of the criminal and civil arenas.

Anonymous said...

7:49, I think you are exactly right.