Last Friday a federal jury awarded $13.2 million in compensation to David Ayers, who served 13 years of a life-without-parole prison sentence for a murder that DNA eventually proved he didn’t commit. This should certainly get the attention of Cleveland and Ohio taxpayers if the horror of an innocent person languishing in prison while the true murderer escapes justice is not troubling enough. It should also motivate voters to signal zero tolerance for official misconduct (a recurring contributor to wrongful convictions) and to require implementation of known best practices in criminal justice procedure.
As reported earlier on this blog and (here), and (here), former Cuyahoga County Housing Authority police officer, David Ayers was convicted on December 11, 2000, of the aggravated murder of Dorothy Brown, 76, a resident of the building where Ayers worked and lived. The case rested largely on testimony from a jailhouse snitch, Donald Hutchinson, and a witness, who later recanted, claiming police pressured him into making a false statement.
The cost to taxpayers of the resulting wrongful conviction would have been significant even if Ayers had received no compensation, as is the case with many of the wrongfully convicted. For starters, it cost Ohio taxpayers an estimated $377,000 to house and feed Ayers over his 13 years in prison.
It’s more challenging to put a number on the cost of government officials investigating, preparing, and trying the case before a jury, and then defending the conviction in the Court of Appeals.
Taxpayers also paid the tab when prosecutors represented the state in seeking to prevent the case from being heard at the Ohio Supreme Court (which declined leave to appeal) and then again when Ayers’ submitted a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
Then taxpayers underwrote the efforts of prosecutors who fought the Ohio Innocence Project’s petition to do DNA testing on very important crime scene evidence, which could have shortened this expensive litigation process in the case.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District overturned Ayers’ conviction in 2010 and granted him a new trial. The Court essentially ruled that Ayers’ had been denied the right to counsel when police officers enabled a jailhouse snitch to gain more alleged information about the crime from Ayers in jail after he had been indicted and a jury had been impaneled.
Before making the decision of whether or not to retry Ayers, a new prosecutor ordered DNA testing on the crime scene evidence. Ayers was excluded and the prosecutor dropped the case against him. Ayers was released from prison in September of 2011.
About a year and a half later, taxpayers again paid for lawyers to litigate before a federal jury. The result was the $13.2 million award to Ayers.
While the known costs of this conviction error could be in the neighborhood of $15 million, we have yet to know the human and financial costs of other crimes committed by the real rapist/murderer who escaped justice.
The National Registry of Exonerations attributes this particular miscarriage of justice to perjury/false accusation and official misconduct. Taxpayers should note that this was not simple human error. We are paying a very high tab in wrongful convictions for the misconduct of government officials when they deny rights guaranteed to every U.S. citizen.
DNA-proven wrongful convictions have been attributed to a handful of common recurring contributors. In addition to official misconduct and unreliable snitch testimony evidenced in this case, the list includes misidentification and false confession, both less likely to occur if officials utilize best practices in lineups and interrogations. Instead, many jurisdictions and legislative bodies resist requiring these known procedural deterrents to wrongful conviction.
In the wake of hundreds of wrongful convictions—many of which could have and should have been prevented—it’s time for citizens to say, “Enough.” We should not accept preventable error in our justice system any more than we accept it in other important enterprises and professional services.
The first step to both avoiding costly wrongful convictions and to making our nation safer is for citizens to send the message to our police, sheriffs, and prosecutors that we do not condone and will not tolerate misconduct under color of law and that we support cost-effective reforms that require proven best practices in criminal justice procedures.
The best way to be tough-on-crime is to be accurate on crime. Truth, fairness, and accuracy—as opposed to just high conviction rates—have always been the true measures of excellence and integrity in criminal justice. We should expect and accept no less.