Friday, October 11, 2013

'The Recanters': False convictions more likely as law strays further from biblical standard

One frequently hears Christians lament how far society has strayed from biblical teachings, and it's true. In many cases that's a good thing, as one needn't look far to find abhorrent examples like the murdering of homosexuals or non-virgin brides. But there are elements of biblical law whose wisdom still rings true and I've always thought that, among them, is the notion that convictions for crimes should only be sustained upon the testimony of "two or three witnesses." In both the Old and New Testament, corroboration of an accusation was seen as essential to justifying punishment.

In the modern era, though, there are increasingly many situations where mere accusation by one individual is enough to convict, even (in fact, especially) when that individual is a child. At The Texas Observer, Maurice Chammah has a story that highlights the conundrum created by uncorroborated accusations titled, "The Recanters: What happens when abuse claims come undone." The main protagonist in Chammah's featured  horror story says she was "bullied her into accusing her stepfather" by a social worker at age eight during a three-and-a-half hour interview. Her testimony on the stand contradicted itself and included incredible, unlikely accusations, like her stepfather bathing her vagina with a washcloth filled with broken glass. After his conviction, she was shipped off to foster care; the state thought her mother unfit because she refused to believe her husband was guilty. Ironically, she told Chammah, in foster care she really was molested by a foster parent in Killeen. Whether or not the stepfather was guilty - and both he and the alleged victim insist he was not - it seems impossible to argue the state's intervention benefited the child.

Wrote Chammah, "Advocates for the wrongfully convicted and advocates for child victims both understand the difficulties of child witnesses. They agree that their memories are more malleable than an adult’s. Both see that problem as evidence that their side is losing." The Texas Legislature, for its part, keeps amending the law to make it easier to secure convictions in such cases without corroboration:
Earlier this year, Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman passed Senate Bill 12, which will allow prosecutors to introduce evidence against child-sex assault defendants of prior offenses, including accusations by other children. “Very often it’s hard for jurors to believe the testimony of a small child, especially when there is no physical evidence,” Huffman, a former Houston prosecutor and judge, told me. Often, so much time has passed before the child comes forward that any physical evidence has washed away or healed over.

Kristin Etter of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association told lawmakers that the bill “will lead to more wrongful convictions.”
Both concerns are legitimate. I agree that child molestation cases - especially accusations of long-ago abuse with no physical evidence - are difficult to prosecute. I also agree that changing the law to reduce the amount of evidence against a defendant necessary to convict is likely to send more innocent people in prison. Texas' many DNA exonerations in sex assault cases show that even uncorroborated adult testimony can lead to false convictions.

Which brings me back to the "two or three witnesses" standard promulgated in Mosaic law and repeated in the New Testament by both Christ and the Apostle Paul. There is real wisdom in that requirement. As stories of "the recanters" remind us, accusations are not proof.

RELATED: See earlier Grits coverage of Huffman's bill here and here.


Anonymous said...

There used to be a saying "Better ten go free than one innocent person got to jail." Prosecutors now seem to think it is better that ten innocent people go to jail than one guilty person go free.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That saying, 12:14, usually attributed to William Blackstone in his "Commentaries," has had numerous various iterations.

Anonymous said...

Whenever a police officer is accused of a child sex crime the victim is subjected to a grueling and intensive interview complete with yelling, threats, and intimidation that many have likened to a criminal interrogation.

On the other hand, whenever it's a non-officer who is the accused, you have just the opposite; the victim is pampered and handled with the most-padded of child gloves, and the investigation is concluded usually within just a few short hours.

Victims of police officers are often required to submit to polygraph examinations, whereas this requirement is waived for the accusers of non-officers.

Whenever a cop is the subject of an investigation they bring in the full team and leave no rock unturned at they search for DNA to disprove the victim's accusation, but not so much when a non-officer is the accused, a formal statement is about all that's needed then.

These months-long investigations are all but never conducted other than when a cop is involved which is why it is almost unheard of for one of their victims to recant. And it's almost unheard of, too, to see a police officer acquitted in these types of cases because the evidence has been gathered in such a way as to leave no doubt about guilt.

Most of the wrongful convictions could be easily avoided if the standard that's used with police officers when they're accused was used across the board.

rodsmith said...

loved this statement grits!

"I agree that child molestation cases - especially accusations of long-ago abuse with no physical evidence - are difficult to prosecute."

Of course that's probably why we have or i forget HAD a statute of limitations for all crimes except murder and treason. If you have no evidence to prove a case in court.

You DON'T bring the damn case.

You also DON'T rig the fucking thing by stacking the deck!

Which is what changing the rules AFTER the fact does!

Which is supposed to be UNCONSTUTIONAL under our law.

Steve D said...

It's interesting that the focus here is on child sex abuse and not, say, burglary. (I have dark suspicions) Nevertheless, I see some serious reforms necessary:
1. Police informant testimony is beyond worthless
2. Police testimony is worthless
3. Eyewitness testimony is worthless. In one famous study, people were asked to watch a video of a basketball game and count the passes. Halfway through the video, a guy in a gorilla suit walked across the court. HALF the participants failed to see him. And these are the people we expect to provide reliable testimony in court?

North Texas Cop said...

@ Steve D:

What would you have us do, then? What system or procedure do you propose to implement that would still ensure victims of crime have recourse & a chance for justice?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

NTC, how about the corroboration requirement suggested in the post, for a start?

Anonymous said...

Grits..on your comment to NTC..that won't fly. The cops want to convict SOMEONE regardless of the burden of proof. Having a corroborating requirement would well.....require that they actually do their job and adhere to the constitution, and we all know that doesn't make for good policy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Grits....while we are talking about sex crimes, isn't it time for the good ole sex offender hype and hysteria roundup since Halloween is coming up? You always do a good article on that every year. I am sure north Texas (especially Collin county) is going to be jumping on that bandwagon again this year.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to add also that whenever a police officer is the subject of a child's outcry the officer is immediately alerted to this and informed he is under investigation. His superiors usually suspend him or he is placed in a desk job. This is conducted under the pretext of protecting the public should the accusations prove true. This doesn't sound harmful on its face but it is a huge benefit for the officer because it allows him the opportunity to do damage control and influence potential witnesses. And the one most powerful tool of all, the taped phone call between victim and the abuser, is subjugated because the officer knows to be watching for it and will surely not say anything to incriminate himself as he may have if he hadn't been tipped-off to the investigation. A completely different world exists between the investigations of police officers and members of the general public.

North Texas Cop said...


How do you get a second eyewitness to an adult who sexually abuses a child in secret? Or any victim of sexual assault, for that matter? How do you ensure that a person of any age who reports being assaulted gets a real chance at having something Diane about it? Or should we just talk to their abuser, shrug our shoulders, and send the victim home after telling them to go get another witness to being raped?
I've seen plenty of false accusers, innocent father's, and mothers with agendas using children as pawns. In every case, it was the cops who uncovered the truth and stopped the investigation; not social workers or attorneys. The cops were the ones who protected the falsely accused.

I've also seen what happens to women and kids when their abuser knows they told someone about the ongoing assaults. I've seen them retaliated against, raped even worse, and murdered. So, how was I supposed to tell the kid to go find that 2nd witness to them being anally penetrated by their step-dad when their mommy wouldn't cooperate and lawyers worked to have the child relocated out of state so they could never be examined or questioned again?

Tell me, Scott, what should I say to real victims? Seriously, Scott, what's your real-world, practical solution? Do you have one or do you just talk shit from the sidelines?

Anonymous said...

To NTC...oh puuuuuullleeezzzeee.

Do you really believe your OWN

Anonymous said...

So North Texas Dumbass Cop...when it is purely a "he said, she said" scenario in a child molestation case with no physical evidence and say a decade has passed, are you ACTUALLY saying that the adult has a realistic chance of walking away unscathed? When someone cries "child rape" the cops and prosecutor see red and the adult is fighting to prove him or herself innocent.....instead of the state ATTEMPTING to prove them guilty. The state knows it pretty much has a slam dunk case, regardless of the facts. It is purely a losing scenario for the defendant. I have seen plenty of cases where a child molestation charge is filed against an adult...and the state offers them a "deal" to take either: a) a lighter sentence of probation, sex offender registration and some jail time or b) go to trial...with the real prospect of doing say 20, 30 or 40 YEARS in prison. You know how this works...and people know the chances of defeating a charge like that in front of a Texas jury are slim to none....just ask any criminal attorney.

So educate yourself by going here:

Anonymous said...

Well NTC, what do you say to the wrongly accused after their "victim" recants.....after 10 to 20 years into their sentence? Do you stand on your soap box and scream that the judge, prosecutor and cops should be punished for sending an innocent person to jail. I mean..that IS what this post is about isn't it. Dallas county alone is notorious for sending innocent men to jail based upon uncorroborated testimony and flimsy evidence.

Tell me, NTC, what should YOU say to the innocently incarcerated after their victim has recanted? Seriously, NTC, what's your real-world, practical solution? Do you have one or do you just talk shit from the sidelines?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

NTC, tell them that their claims must be corroborated before the state can take away someone's liberty based solely on an accusation.

As you should know, but apparently don't, corroboration under the law does not require a second eyewitness, but can be other witnesses providing evidence that tends to support the charge. Did the child outcry? In this case, no, the testimony was dragged out of her by an adult with an agenda. Is there DNA or other probative forensic evidence? Crime lab techs are witnesses, too.

Through my work with the Innocence Project of Texas, I've known dozens of men who spent decades in prison because of false rape accusations. Usually the women weren't lying about the rape, but accused the wrong guy. I'd pay good money to watch you sit in a room with those guys and explain to them why uncorroborated testimony is enough to lock somebody up. There are also quite a few allegations of child molestation that are egged on by an adult's agenda - in this case, a forensic psychologist, in many cases, feuding family members (Google the San Antonio Four). If you've seen so many cases with false accusations debunked by cops, I really don't understand why you dispute that an accusation from an alleged victim by itself should be sufficient to convict.

North Texas Cop said...

Grits wrote: " I really don't understand why you dispute that an accusation from an alleged victim by itself should be sufficient to convict."

I never said that and I do believe in the importance of corroborating evidence. I know all about evidence provided by third parties that tends to support the charge. That's not what your article called for though. You strongly implied that you wanted two eyewitness to these types of cases, not just corroborating evidence.

You're playing word games again, Scott. Do you want two eyewitness or will you truly be fine with sending a man to prison based on corroborating information, testimony, and evidence provided by a person who was not actually at the scene of the crime?

I've seen plenty of injustice, Scott. Most of it was caused by people who did everything in their power to ensure that predators were protected and released. I often wonder what the world would be like if people like you wrote our laws and controlled our police & courts (as you wish you could). I suspect it would look an awful lot like Somalia or "Escape From New York."

Anonymous said...

Of course...NTC is basically saying...if in doubt, lock them up anyway..guilty or not. After all, it's all about the children anyway right? To hell with real justice. Typical cop.

Anonymous said...

I often wonder what the world would be like if someone like North Texas Cop wrote our laws and controlled our police & courts (as you wish you could). I suspect it would look an awful lot like Stalin's Soviet Union, where you would be sent away for any infraction, real or imagined.

Anonymous said...

Scott...he is a can't talk reason with someone who feels he IS the law.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

NTC, you're arguing against a phantom in your own head, not what I've written here. I specifically called for corroboration and said that requirement formed the basis for the two or three witnesses rule in Mosaic law, which Christ and the Apostle Paul reiterated in the New Testament. You'd LIKE me to have said two or more EYEwitnesses are required because that's the straw man you'd prefer to debate. It's just not what I wrote.

Anonymous said...

Don't believe the justice system pampers police officers who molest children? How about the news media taking part to hide the most heinous child sex crimes committed by cops?

In West Columbia, Texas, the police chief went on the run a couple of months ago when investigators turned up evidence that he'd bound, gagged and sexually assaulted a young boy, repeatedly, beginning in 1998. They even say they found bondage gear in his office at the police department.

After finally turning himself in, he was granted bail and released. Now if this had been an ordinary citizen he wouldn't have been allowed bond.

Just an hours drive west of Houston, you would think this would have been national or international news, but because it involved a cop, only one of the dozens of media outlets in the Houston area chose to report on it:

Unknown said...

scroll to bottom of page on Arean Family

Recanter and failed system in Bell County. Good example here

Anonymous said...

I believe everyone here can agree that NO D.A., judge or cop will ever admit to any wrongdoing whenever a victim recants after an innocent man is sent to prison. Even when the victim recants, it's still a huge uphill battle for the incarcerated person to get out of prison. Even then, their life has been irrevocably changed, and not for the good. What is truly disturbing about the North Texas Cop's stand on this is, he isn't concerned about sending an innocent person to jail...he seems to only be concerned about getting the arrest and conviction. So...cop...which is the bigger crime?: 1) A rapist committing a horrible crime and getting away with it? or 2) An innocent person being convicted for a crime they didn't commit? To me, both are terrible, but the second one is even worse. long as you get your man right? Who cares if he is innocent?

Anonymous said...

Come on people....are you seriously trying to talk sense to a cop? Cops are nothing but egomaniacs and bullies with badges and guns. To quote Judege Dredd "I AM THE LAW"...and scarily enough, that is how practically every cops sees himself. It is a sad society that we live in when we tend to fear law enforcement more than we fear criminals. At least with criminals, we know where they stand....with cops, it's a true roll of the dice.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Cops are nothing but egomaniacs and bullies with badges and guns"

Some, not all. Resist the urge to generalize. Truth is, the good ones tend to agree with many critiques of policing techniques, but the squeaky wheels are the ones lambasting every reform suggestion and it gives the false impression that their views represent all of their peers. Not the case. Moreover, NTC's not the worst on that score, by a longshot. His comments are welcome here anytime, even if I thought he was arguing against straw men on this string.

Anonymous said...

True Scott...there are some really good cops out there, but it's hard to notice them when there are an incredibly high percentage of bad ones. It's like they bad apple..unfortunately, it's not just one bad apple when it comes to law enforcement. After being on the receiving end of a cop that lied on the stand it is very hard to see the good in them.

Anonymous said...

Grits, Someone in Dallas asks - how do you know that NTC is a male, a real cop and actually hails from North Texas?

Someone in the Conference Room asks - Why do you feel the need to explain & re-explain what you wrote to certain people when all you have to do is direct them to the Post above?

For all we / you know, he is a she and working on a school project to see how many people can be fooled into beleiving that the Comments & Replies are from a cop, when in fact are from a child, prison guard or a drunk at the local pub with WiFi access.

In other words, for you to be misquoted (have words put into your Post-Mouth) and take time to respectfully explain and re-explain again (provide a solution as requested), and recieve this macho bullshit reply -

"Do you have one or do you just talk shit from the sidelines?" and strangely go on to extend this so- called "NTC" the key to your Blog-House (TM) with - "His comments are welcome here anytime, even if I thought he was arguing against straw men on this string." simply takes away from the Post as it invites future b.s.

Be yourself and let the readership handle: the bullies, the jerks & the folks that want to poke your chest as they read through your Posts'. It's our pleasure.

Anonymous said...

Assuming that you are a real cop, please consider providing Grits with your name & badge # in order to confirm if you are one of the cops that falsely arrested someone in Texas.

Until then, you might be a redneck.

Anonymous said...

So far, someone that wants us to think is in L.E. has blamed lawyers for letting the bad guys get away with sick-ass sexually related crimes and tried to put Grits in a corner with lame innuendo. If you are legit you'll gain a lil respect. If you are tied to any false arrests, wrongful convictions including disciplinary issues the Arbitrator(s) made go away, we'll try to understand any excuses’ you wish to provide.

For now, you seem to have an open invitation to this Blog, despite accusing Grits of talking out of the side of his neck from his lazyboy. And yet, you have not addressed the solutions requested & provided.

Anonymous said...

This is a TEST

NTC, if a crime victims' description of an alleged criminal is recorded within moments of occurring as having: black skin with straight black hair & the crime victim Possitively picks out the person with white skin and wavy light brown hair 5 days later -

*What do you do?

Anonymous said...

So North Texas Cop....what is your take on the blog post here on Grits about Ruby Session RIP? A prime example of an innocent man dying in a Texas prison after a wrongful rape conviction. Not only was his life ruined and lost...but how many members of his family suffered as well? You like to talk trash from the sidelines about this particular "The Recanters" lets hear you chime in about "Ruby Session RIP". I seriously doubt that you will.

Anonymous said...