Among the many misconceptions about the criminal justice system revealed through DNA exonerations is the myth that conviction errors will get corrected on appeal. The Innocence Project now lists 292 DNA-proven wrongful convictions. Many of these unfortunate people had exhausted a lengthy appeals process before DNA finally proved their innocence. Former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long, who has committed to working for the wrongfully convicted, recently provided insights into why the courts do not provide the guaranteed corrections Americans tend to expect.
Long served more than twelve years on the New Jersey high court, 34 years in the judiciary, before reaching 70, the age of mandatory retirement, on March 1, 2012. She has recently become a new member of the board of directors of Centurion Ministries. This Princeton organization shares many of the goals of the unaffiliated Innocence Project.
Specifically, Centurion Ministries seeks “to vindicate and free from prison those individuals in the United States and Canada who are factually innocent of the crimes for which they have been unjustly convicted and imprisoned for life or death.”
Justice Long also joined the law firm Fox Rothschild, and she expects to engage the firm’s lawyers pro bono in the detailed legal work that usually precedes achieving a reversal in a wrongful conviction.
Centurion Ministries can use the assistance. Since 1983, the organization has freed 49 innocent persons who had collectively served 956 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Many of these cases lacked DNA evidence. The cost of restoring justice is high. According to Centurion Ministries’ website, it takes 5-10 years of work and financial resources of $100,000 to $500,000 for each case. The non-profit organization “bears all costs for its indigent clients.”
The enormous human and financial resources needed to correct the criminal justice system’s errors post-conviction prompts the question of why wrongful prosecutions cannot be identified earlier in the official process of justice.
In a recent article in The Times of Trenton, Justice Long made a telling distinction in the roles of the courts verses organizations such as Centurion Ministries: “As a judge, we are interested in the fairness of the judicial proceeding,” she said. “This organization (Centurion) is interested in the reality. What actually happened. Those are two very different focuses.”
Long explained to reporter Bridget Clerkin that judges are bound by the letter of the law regarding what evidence is admissible and how juries should be instructed. She described the work of organizations like Centurion Ministries as “more fact-based” as contrasted with the work of judges as “law-based.”
The lessons of DNA have clearly prompted the former justice to assist in the work of “fact-based” justice. She has been particularly concerned about the frequency with which eyewitness testimony has put people behind bars. Once considered irrefutable, eyewitness evidence has been proven by DNA to be “faulty and inaccurate,” Long said.
The justice’s reflections provide insight into how justice can stumble. The American system of justice is a long process with many players and virtually no oversight. Each player’s role is clearly defined and accounts for only a piece of the process. No one person or office is fully responsible. It is extremely rare for anyone to be held accountable for the errors that steal the lives of the innocent and enable criminals to escape justice and continue lives of crime and violence. Our criminal justice system encourages compartmentalization and discourages accountability.
A former state supreme court justice has joined those working for justice for the innocent, because she presumably knows what we all must recognize: (1) the scope of wrongful conviction is greater than most imagined; (2) the appeals system is designed to identify legal errors, not conviction errors; and (3) many must become engaged if we want to bring justice to the wrongfully convicted and improve the system. By requiring proven best practices and supporting efforts to elevate the search for truth in the criminal justice system, we can reduce wrongful conviction and its costly toll. Thank you, Justice Long, for adding your considerable experience and talents to this important work.