Convicted murderer Charles Wilhite has an unusual advocate: the niece of murder victim, Alberto Rodriguez. Marialyn—who requested that the Boston Globe not reveal her last name due to safety concerns—rallied in support of Wilhite on Saturday, May 5, 2012, in Springfield, Massachusetts, because she believes Wilhite was wrongfully convicted of killing her uncle.
As reported here, a key witness in the trial now claims that a Springfield detective and the assistant district attorney pressured his testimony. The witness has recanted his identification of Wilhite as the killer. A decision on whether or not his original testimony will stand is expected today from Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis.
Both Wilhite’s and Rodriguez’s family members rallied to support true justice. “This is not justice for Alberto’s family. This is not justice for Charles Wilhite. This is not justice for Springfield,” said Wilhite’s uncle.
Hampden District Attorney Mark Mastroianni, appointed after Wilhite’s conviction, is not objecting to the pursuit of truth in the hearing,”…let’s put the witness on the stand and see what the real story is,” he said.
The article is indication of growing recognition that wrongful conviction’s pain extends beyond the unfortunate person convicted of a crime not committed. Wrongful conviction strikes unintended blows to others also very undeserving of additional hardship: Victims of crime and their families.
In this case, the victim’s family members last Saturday were doing the hard work of drawing attention to a possible wrongful conviction, which has denied them the opportunity to move beyond their family tragedy.
Even worse for a victim is unintended participation in a wrongful conviction. Imagine identifying your rapist, testifying in court, prompting his conviction and incarceration, only to learn years later through DNA testing that you fingered the wrong person. Perhaps the best-known account of this nightmare is that of Jennifer Thompson, who co-authored Picking Cotton, with Ronald Cotton, the innocent man sent to prison as a result of her unintentional misidentification.
Unfortunately, Jennifer Thompson’s case is not the only such incident.
One of the more difficult jobs of a law enforcement officer or district attorney is telling a rape victim that she was mistaken in her eyewitness identification and unintentionally sent the wrong man to prison. The quilt associated with this error is intensified by the possibility that the real perpetrator may have gone on to commit more violent crimes.
Concern for victims should motivate private citizens, law enforcement, and district attorneys to embrace the implementation of criminal justice reforms, procedural best practices, and opportunities for DNA testing that could either confirm guilt or reveal a wrongful conviction.
Unfortunately, this too often has not been the case. In fact, a curious myth that sometimes surfaces in arguments to oppose post-conviction DNA testing is that it dishonors the victim to question a conviction.
“We think it would be devastating to victims everywhere, not just this victim,” said a Fairfield County (Ohio) assistant prosecutor in opposing DNA testing for a paroled rapist.
The Columbus Dispatch in a series called “Test of Convictions” worked with the Ohio Innocence Project to identify Ohio cases most worthy of post-conviction DNA testing, which was to be provided free of charge. In too many of these cases, the county prosecutor resisted the testing.
One case involved a request to test the semen-stained underwear of a child rape victim. The district attorney, in opposing the testing, said, “I think it would be devastating for her. It just dredges up a lot of memories. She was a brave little girl to come in and testify.”
This argument is preposterous. Incarcerating the wrong person does nothing to serve the victim. It brings only flawed and possibly temporary closure and a false sense of the security provided in believing that the perpetrator has been removed from the streets.
Criminal justice procedures that increase the opportunity for the victim’s participation in convicting an innocent person can prompt guilt associated even with an unintentional error that steals an innocent person’s freedom, reputation, resources, and important life experiences.
According to the Innocence Project, in nearly 45 percent of the first 253 DNA-proven exonerations, the real perpetrator was also identified, and nearly half of these true perpetrators had gone on to commit (and were convicted of) other crimes while the innocent person was in prison. Imagine how this recognition feels to anyone—including the victim—who contributed to the wrongful conviction.
Wrongful conviction never serves victims and often causes pain that can rival that of the initial crime. Efforts to pursue best procedural criminal justice practices and to correct wrongful convictions are the only responses that truly serve victims. Doing all that we can as a society to get verdicts right the first time honors all crime victims and protects them and other innocents from further victimization.