Comment on CNN’s 3/30/14 Death Row Stories

Comment on CNN’s Death Row Stories from Richard Kiger

Tonight (Duckett [the death row inmate]) is interesting if only because it suggests that some on death row may be there for a good reason. The prosecutor this time did not seem to be as irresponsible as in earlier episodes. Actually, he was pretty decent. There are still problems with Brady material, questionable evidence from a lab (the FBI), unreliable witnesses, what is probably poor training of officers with respect to gathering evidence, and credibility issues.

I am a little surprised that Frank [the investigator] went to Edna Buchanan [the journalist] when he did and that she published without checking things out more carefully. It’s understandable she feels burned and his credibility is now at issue, at least in terms of his judgment and procedural skills. It also troubles me that the defendant seemed, to me, a little cavalier about the situation during the interview.

The allegedly related case in the neighboring county is interesting also. The evidence of misconduct seems pretty thin in terms of what we were told. Can his wife testify against him? I don’t know. There may be a disqualification here because they were married at the time. On the other hand, it does not appear that he told her anything, but, rather, that she observed something, that is, he came home with tangible items that she saw and this made her wonder what he had done. That could be a critical distinction. If she can testify, it remains a good question whether she has a motive to get rid of him, and we don’t know based on what we have been told.

The defense lawyer was a poor choice, it seems. It sounds as though he didn’t do much of anything. On the other hand, what did he have to work with, that is, did he have the resources to conduct discovery and perhaps hire a private detective (something hinted at by the woman who recanted and then un-recanted). Mounting a defense to a case is very expensive; all litigation is expensive. This is one of the problems with a public defender as the defense lawyer: you may be getting a dedicated advocate who is very experienced and knowledgeable, but who is hamstrung by lack of resources to do these very things. Some public defenders are not much, but many are very good lawyers who do their best and work for justice for their clients. I am not knocking PDs, but pointing out that the system does not always allow them to do the kind of job they would like to do.

When you put all these issues side by side, the case against Duckett seems pretty weak and it is natural to wonder if there was a miscarriage of justice. Frank’s misgivings about his innocence are problematic. As individuals, we are all entitled to our opinions as to whether someone is guilty. That’s not the point in a trial. The point is, did the government carry its burden to play by the rules and so present the jury with the evidence it needed to decide if the defendant was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I think we are entitled in this case, as presented, to conclude that the system was flawed and so Duckett should not have been convicted. Whether he is guilty of some other crime is irrelevant to this crime.

This brings up another issue. If there is a case against him in the other matter, why does prosecution in that case depend on whether he is set free in the case that was tried to the audience tonight? The answer, of course, is money, but that is cold comfort to the family of the girl who was killed. Is it not cruelly inconsistent to say that the family of the one girl deserve closure, but the family of the other girl can wait another 26 years before they get the same closure? That just doesn’t wash.

All in all, this is an interesting episode because the person on death row appears to deserve to be there, but not for the crime that brought him there. I take that to be the point of tonight’s episode, but if so, the presentation may have been a little subtle for the point that needs to be made. We remain where we have been, presented with a flawed system that is untrustworthy when it comes to convicting people for crimes they are alleged to have committed. I am not ignoring or minimizing the importance of many other reasons to abolish the death penalty, but merely trying to focus on the issue presented.

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