Saturday, July 26, 2014

Would You Confess to a Crime You Did Not Commit?

The purpose of the legal system is to find out the truth. In the American system of justice, the search for truth is entrusted to competing advocates who argue the opposite side of a question. The assumption is that these dueling advocates are more or less equal in skill, abilities, and resources, so the outcome of their confrontation will be dictated by who has the better case — in other words, the better claim to the truth. Sometimes, however, the scales of justice are not so evenly balanced.

In a justice system that relies so heavily on the skills and abilities of lawyers to argue for their clients and persuade skeptical third-parties of the truth, the story of Michael Philips shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The Washington Post reports:
In 1990, Michael Phillips was convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl at a motel in Dallas, Tex., where they both lived. Phillips pleaded guilty because, he said later, his attorney told him that as a black man who had been accused of raping a white teenager, he should try to avoid a jury trial. He went to prison for a dozen years and, after his release, spent another six months in jail after failing to register as a sex offender.
According to the Post’s report, a quarter century after the attack, DNA evidence conclusively has demonstrated that Phillips was not the rapist, too late to save Phillips from serving time for a crime he did not commit, but another sobering reminder that the legal system is not free from mistakes.

What evidence did Philips face that convinced him it was better to confess to a crime he did not commit than to try to prove his innocence in court? The eyewitness identification of the victim. According to the Post:
The woman who was raped partially pulled up the ski mask on her attacker, and she said she recognized Phillips. She also picked a photo of him out of a lineup.
Eyewitness identifications are notoriously unreliable. They are also devastatingly persuasive. Combine that with the charged background of race relations and extremely long sentences for people accused of crimes who exercise their right to test prosecutor’s cases in court, and Michael Phillips’ decision to accept a dozen years in prison over much harsher alternatives if the dice did not fall his way makes chilling sense.

From the safety and security of our homes, it is easy to say that we would never confess to a crime we did not commit, but Michael Phillips’ story should give us pause. It is nice to think that truth prevails, but that is not always how things turn out, and sometimes an innocent man serves someone else’s time while the true perpetrator goes free.

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