GIVEN THE RAFT of overturned convictions we’ve seen recently, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether our prison populations would be significantly reduced if prosecutorial conduct during criminal investigations and trials was more closely scrutinized, and if forensic evidence was re-examined using updated DNA technology. Last week, Neil Miller, who served 10 years for a rape he did not commit before DNA evidence proved his innocence, filed suit in federal court seeking compensatory damages from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, the City of Boston, and five police officers. Miller’s story, along with those of four other wrongly convicted men, was recently detailed in "Burden of Innocence," a special report by Frontline.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Suffolk County district attorney Dan Conley somewhat reluctantly ordered an internal review of new evidence in the Tiffany Moore case. In 1988, Moore’s murder dominated the headlines in both of the city’s two dailies and galvanized city officials to crack down on gang violence. The 12-year-old Moore, who was sitting on a mailbox and hanging out with friends, was killed by gunshots fired by two masked men. At the time, investigators believed that the shots were meant for members of the Humboldt street gang, one of whom was sitting near Moore when she was shot. On Sunday, the Boston Globe published a harrowing account of prosecutorial intimidation and abuse in the Moore case, casting significant doubt on whether Shawn Drumgold, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for Moore’s murder, actually committed the crime.
According to the Globe, a witness who could have provided Drumgold with an alibi was threatened with arrest by one of the investigators, who originally interviewed her. Then 19 years old, the woman had an outstanding warrant for shoplifting. The investigator called her at home and told her that if she testified during grand-jury proceedings, she could be arrested after she stepped down from the stand. Today, she’s a 34-year-old nursing student who told the Globe she would be willing to testify at a new trial.
Another witness was bullied by a prosecutor into recounting a conversation between Drumgold and Terrence Taylor, who was also tried for Moore’s murder but acquitted. The conversation, as recounted on the stand, seemed to indicate that both men had planned the shooting. This witness now says no such conversation ever took place. She told the Globe that the prosecutor, whose name she cannot remember, was "screaming" at her in private before she testified at the trial and that he "could have got me to say anything."
The prosecutors’ star witness, a woman whose testimony several jurors say convinced them of Drumgold’s guilt, suffered from a form of brain cancer that can affect memory — though no one involved with the case was ever informed of this. The witness has since died of the cancer.
Yet another witness, who claimed to have seen Drumgold and Taylor the night of the shooting and gave damaging testimony about their actions that night, was facing up to 10 years in prison on charges ranging from possession of cocaine to theft. Less than a week after Drumgold’s conviction, all the charges against the witness — a man Drumgold and Taylor’s attorneys said didn’t even know the two defendants — were dropped.
That Conley has ordered a review of the evidence is good news for Drumgold — if he is truly innocent. But what took Conley so long? This evidence has existed since the first day of Drumgold’s trial. Members of the Castlegate gang, for which Drumgold was allegedly working that night, have said he didn’t kill Moore. Even the victim’s mother, Alice Moore, publicly expressed doubt after Drumgold’s conviction about whether he had killed her daughter.
Except for the fact that he was an unsavory character and an easy target, it’s hard to fathom the injustice done to Drumgold if he is innocent of Moore’s murder, as the Globe’s review compellingly suggests. The only reassurance we can take from stories like this is that Massachusetts does not have a death penalty. (Which is what makes the GOP’s repeated calls for reinstating the death penalty in Massachusetts so disturbing.)
What makes the Drumgold and Miller cases a truly frightening indictment of the justice system is that such incidents are not confined to Boston’s overzealous Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. Cases like these occur across the nation and throughout the state. Last December, a New York judge threw out the criminal convictions of five men who’d been found guilty of raping and beating Trisha Meili, who was, until recently, known only as the "Central Park jogger." Like the Tiffany Moore case, that of the Central Park jogger enraged the public. The press and politicians demanded immediate results. Police and prosecutors delivered; unfortunately, they got the wrong guys.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has documented, in searing detail, the almost inconceivable miscarriage of justice perpetrated against 10 percent of the African-American population in Tulia, Texas. According to the testimony of a rogue cop whose method of cataloguing evidence was to write details of events on his legs, nearly 50 Tulia residents were arrested in a pre-dawn raid four years ago and charged with drug-trafficking crimes. Thanks in large part to Herbert’s columns, local authorities have looked into the case and the cop in question has since been indicted for perjury. Yet 13 people convicted on the basis of Coleman’s testimony remain in jail.
How can this happen? Easily. When you combine overzealous district attorneys who care about little more than winning re-election with shoddy police work built around a public cry to "lock them up and throw away the key," you get a justice system that dispenses injustice. Prosecutors everywhere care more and more about earning another notch on their conviction belts than about working for justice; meanwhile, judges feel more and more intimidated by public and political pressure to deliver harsh sentences. What’s the solution? We can start with exposing and prosecuting the prosecutors, police officers, and their higher-ups in these cases. If Drumgold was indeed framed, as the Globe report seems to indicate, then those responsible for threatening witnesses and creating or withholding evidence should be punished.
Let’s not forget that for the most part, those who are arrested and illicitly prosecuted are minorities and the marginalized of our society. The occasional cases in which prosecutorial misconduct come to light usually involve high-profile crimes — the murder of Tiffany Moore or the rape of the Central Park jogger. But prosecutorial abuses also run rampant in cases that don’t make the headlines. And injustice is dispensed daily — oftentimes through plea-bargaining — in cases that are rarely, if ever, scrutinized. It is truly sad that almost no one within the criminal-justice system, the public, or our lawmakers actually cares about this. But until there are consequences for prosecutors who frame the innocent because a "gut instinct" says they are guilty, wrongful convictions will be handed down far more often than any of us would like to think.
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