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  • Doug Tjapkes

Innocent until proven guilty? You must be kidding!

I love a good thriller, and Michael Connelly’s new book The Law of Innocence is one of the best I’ve read in a long time! It reminds me of two very important points that we often ignore, or just don’t believe: The presumption of innocent until proven guilty just isn’t true, and never has been; and, defense attorneys have an unfair, uphill fight in U.S. courtrooms. I still remember my thoughts, when covering my first trial as a young reporter. “Wow, the prosecutor has a strong edge, here!” But, in my naivete, I just assumed that’s the way it was supposed to be. We want bad guys off the street, right? Connelly’s fictional defense attorney Mickey Haller insists that going to trial is really a gamble: The prosecution is always the house in this game. It holds the bank and deals the cards. The plight worsens substantially for the accused if that person is poor and/or black. Here in Michigan, the situation used to be terrible...one of the worst in the country. I saw this first hand when I began helping Maurice Carter in the mid-1990s. Here was Maurice, an indigent black man from Gary, Indiana, arrested in Michigan on the testimony of a jail-house snitch for a crime he did not commit. His court-appointed lawyer, who had a reputation of falling asleep in the courtroom and of fleecing black people, never even met with him until the day of the trial. The only witness to the crime, who could prove that Maurice was not the shooter, was assured by this lawyer that “everything would be all right.” It wasn’t. Maurice spent the next 29 years in prison! Convicted with no evidence, no fingerprints, no weapon and no motive. All-white jury. While I am encouraged by progress in Michigan, I stress that the battle to help poor people facing criminal charges is far from balanced. In 2013 our legislature established the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, which set up very decent standards and insisted that those standards be met state-wide. Dramatic progress has been made. And, good news...there’ll be many more improvements. Good thing, because we have a long way to go! BUT, what happens in Lansing and what actually happens in the courtroom are two different things. Especially for that person hoping to prove innocence. Fictional attorney Mickey Haller says: There is nothing pure about the law when you get inside a courtroom. It’s a bare-knuckle fight, and each side uses whatever it can to bludgeon the other. I conclude with these words of realism from another author, John Grisham: “The presumption of innocence is now the presumption of guilt. The burden of proof is a travesty because the proof is often lies. Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt means if he probably did it, then let’s get him off the streets.” Sad. But spot on.

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