Friday, September 01, 2006

For DA, innocent under the law may not be innocent enough

Having just blogged about the first Tulia defendant's compensation by the state for his wrongful incarceration, I was interested to read an editorial from today's Houston Chronicle ("Grudging Justice," Sept. 1) urging District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal to allow similar payment to Brandy Del Riggs, who was recently released on appeal after spending five years in prison. As the newspaper points out, that means she should be eligible for compensation, too. Wrote the Chronicle's editors:

By declining to retry 25-year-old Brandy Del Briggs in the death of her 2-month-old baby, Daniel, in 1999, Harris County prosecutors have admitted their evidence is inadequate to convict her. As the American legal system rests on the concept of being not guilty until so proved, that makes Briggs an innocent woman.

A state law mandating $25,000 compensation for every year served in prison to wrongfully convicted people requires that the district attorney whose prosecutors won the original conviction sign a letter affirming the ex-convict's innocence. Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal has indicated he continues to doubt the innocence of Briggs, who agreed to plead guilty to injury to a child to avoid the more serious charge of murder.

"It's not a situation where I can say she's completely innocent," Rosenthal said. "It's a situation where we can't prove our case." That sentiment is not far from declaring he believes she is guilty until proved innocent.

Briggs was sentenced to 17 years and served five before a new attorney took up the case and appealed, resulting in her conviction being overturned. She claimed she made the admission of guilt on the advice of a lawyer who told her she did not have enough money to fully contest the murder charge.

What should a District Attorney do when the courts say a defendant is innocent and thus entitled to compensation? In this case the DA's own office decided they don't have enough evidence for a re-trial. If innocence is not 100% certain, but guilt cannot be proven, should the DA sign a letter confirming the exonerated status of the defendant so they can be compensated? Are DAs who won't do so sticking by their guns, or just sore losers?

I'm interested in readers' opinions, but I think the Chronicle put it rightly: "Rosenthal would only enhance the stature of his office by issuing a letter stating the obvious: There is insufficient evidence to prove Briggs committed a crime, and she is innocent under the law," they wrote. "Case closed."

Via Steve Hall


Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe anybody would expect anything less from these self appointed privileged people? How dare you question their greatness, next thing you know you’ll expect them to act like PUBLIC SERVENT “ INSTEAD OF SELF PROCLAIMED “ GODS” !!! They are the law, didn't you get the memo???

Rusty White

Anonymous said...

Umm ... aren't DAs elected by voters in Texas? What's all this "self-appointed" stuff???

Anonymous said...

"Innocent under the law" = doesn't exist. It's "guilty" or "not guilty" -- and that ain't the same as innocent.

Maybe the compensation law should be changed to reflect that, if it's a sticking point?? Or does that matter?