Quality Control for Prosecutors - Only In America

flag usa.jpgSometimes, you just have to shake your head and say, "only in America". Take rapper 50 Cent, for example. Curtis Jackson was dealing drugs when he was shot nine times over a measly $5,000 drug deal. 50 Cent is now worth half a billion dollars (maybe more, He sold his share of Vitamin-Water for $300 million). Yes, only in America can a drug dealer leave crime behind and make millions legally. As the song goes, he came from the bottom, to the top--legally--and it is inspiring. Role model? Maybe not. Inspirational? Absolutely. Makes me proud to be an American. Can you think of any other country in which 50 Cent could have used his business intelligence to make himself hundreds of millions legally? No, you can't.

Before I began defending criminal accusations back in 1993, I was an accountant (briefly). Capitalism is a great system, but to work properly public companies must provide the public accurate information. Accountants play an important role in auditing these financial records. Unfortunately, we don't find such important internal controls in State Attorney's offices, at least not here in Florida. So, leave it to the freedom loving people of Texas to come up with a uniquely American way of testing the integrity of their prosecutions. Before we delve into that, let's take a look at another inspiring story.

Michael Phillips entered a plea to 12 years in prison for the hotel rape of a 16 year old girl back in 1990. The teenage girl was staying at the hotel when someone broke into her room and raped her. Michael worked at the hotel, and lived there. The 16 year old girl, who was white, positively identified Michael (who is black) out of a photo lineup. We all know the problems with eyewitness identification. Add to that, the problems of interracial identification. Nonetheless, Michael entered a plea, believing that the jury would not believe his word over a white teenage girl's word, and knowing that a prior burglary conviction would put him in danger of spending decades in prison if he lost at trial. Also, his public defender told him he would be paroled within 4 years, but that didn't happen--he did all 12 years.

Michael is now in poor health, residing at a nursing home at age 57. In May, a few police officers showed up at his nursing home to have a talk. For a guy like Michael, police visits are not a good thing. But this time, the officers blew his mind. They told him that his old case was going to be dropped. Michael knew he was innocent, but he didn't think anyone cared. He was wrong. The prosecutor retested the DNA, and discovered that the DNA found in the 16 year old girl was not his. Instead, the DNA matched another black male staying in the same hotel at the same time as the rape, Lee Marvin Banks (he cannot be prosecuted, it is beyond the Statute of Limitations). That's right, you heard me. The prosecutor retested the DNA--without even being asked.

Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins started something that, I'm pretty sure, is like nothing on Earth. Forget about America. I'm talking the whole planet. He created a "Conviction Integrity Unit" within his prosecutor's office, a unit that systematically tests DNA in old cases. The unit started their work in 2009 and since that time, this State Attorney's office has exonerated 34 people. Michael Phillips didn't even ask the prosecutors to test his DNA, but these prosecutors did it anyway, to protect the integrity of their convictions.

Mr. Phillips spent 12 years in prison, and after serving the time, he once asked a court that his conviction be overturned--but the request was quickly denied. So, like many others in Michael's position, he gave up on claiming his innocence. And that's a pretty scary thought. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, one out of ten people who are exonerated pled guilty to a charge they did not commit (1,404 people have been exonerated since 1989).

Michael's hearing is set for this Friday, at which time his exoneration will become official. Texas law grants him $80,000 for each of the 12 years in prison, plus another $80,000 a year for the rest of his life.

"Conviction Integrity Unit"? Prosecutors undoing their own prosecutions? Only in America.