Wrongful convictions are bullshit…and you don’t have to take just our word for it. Last night, Showtime’s hit show, Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, aired an episode addressing the many plagues of our criminal justice system and the unreliability of our current forensic science practices to which many innocent members of our society have fallen prey, including Jamie Bain. In the words of exoneree Jamie Bain himself and the Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF), Seth Miller, who was one of the key players in Bain’s exoneration, Penn and Teller provide us with a fairly deep look into these crucial matters.
Oftentimes, once a suspect has been convicted, the prosecutors rule out the possibility of any other perpetrators because they have already convinced themselves that their suspect is guilty. At times when there has been no solid evidence in deciding a conviction, however, the socially conscious citizen must ask why the constitutional “innocent until proven guilty” concept seems to have vanished from the courtroom?
Take a look at the case of Jamie Bain who was accused of breaking into and entering a private residence, kidnapping a child, and raping him. Upon describing his attacker, the victim was persuaded by his uncle that the description fit Jamie Bain (both the attacker and Bain had a bushy afro). However, Bain’s blood type did not match the blood type of the semen found on the victim’s clothing. Not only that, as IPF Executive Director Seth Miller pointed out, the police deliberately asked the victim to pick Jamie Bain, and not who he thought truly looked like his attacker, out of the line-up. Under such circumstances, even though there was clear evidence that pointed to Bain’s innocence, the jury opted to rely on the testimony of an FBI agent. Why? Well, after all, who wouldn’t believe an FBI agent? Now, here’s another “fun” fact: law enforcement professionals are evaluated based on how many people they put in jail.
Going further in solidifying a need to correct our criminal justice system, Penn and Teller also explored the story of Richard Paey who was arrested for drug trafficking and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Paey had been involved in a serious car accident that confined him to a wheelchair, and the drugs he’d been arrested for were, in fact, painkillers prescribed by his doctor. Paey spent three and a half years in prison and many more battling the charges against him.
With flaws such as these, it is no wonder that, since the 1980s, the population in our prisons has gone up significantly. Some would pair that with the coincident that the crime rate has decreased a significant amount since that period of time as well. Penn and Teller interview two experts, including Mike Rushford, President of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, who believe in that correlation as being a direct one. In other words:
higher prison rate = lower crime rate
Penn and Teller, however, refute that with an equation of their own:
1 innocent in jail = 1 criminal on the loose
That is…whose place is that innocent person having to take in prison…? We spend an alarming $50 billion simply to keep people in jail. Who are these people? Richard Paey, a handicapped, car accident victim? Jamie Bain, the face of complete innocence who suffered 35 years in prison for a crime he couldn’t even dream of committing?
Mistakes have been made…major ones. What could be our saving grace? Clearly not the methods involved in the aforementioned cases. To make that point, consider the claims made by Bradly Balco of Reason Magazine who has been studying and analyzing the use of forensic science in our criminal justice system. His findings insist that forensic science was not created by scientists, but by law enforcement agents and prosecutors who aim to utilize it in defending their own preconceived reasoning. Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky of John Jake College of Criminal Justice agrees that there is a lot of potential error when it comes to forensic science. According to him, it is, instead, DNA testing that has proven to be one of the only reliable ways to confirm a person’s involvement or innocence.
So, if 2.3 million Americans are in prison today, how many of them were locked up after unfair trials? How many were just victims of—in Penn’s words—“asshole, out-of-control prosecutors and faulty forensics?” If Americans are to be considered innocent until proven guilty, how do we explain the hundreds of exonerations that have already taken place in America?
Written in collaboration with Tabby