In a rare legal reversal, the Oklahoma County District Judge Amy Palumbo recently exonerated Glynn Simons after he had spent 48 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
This is the longest known wrongful sentence in the US, and one of the greatest travesties of the criminal justice system.
Simons, 70, was freed after the court found that prosecutors withheld some crucial evidence in the case, including a police report that documented how a witness may have identified alternate suspects.
Though courts usually err on the side of protecting innocence, many cases of wrongful convictions have been recorded.
Globally, there has been concerted lobbying for the abolition of death sentence, including the passage of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
A similar move is being made by other regional entities such as the European Union through its protocols and convention on human rights.
In Kenya, the 2017 the Supreme Court of Kenya (SCOK) declaration of mandatory death sentence as illegal and unconstitutional, and current Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, sponsored by Ugunja MP Opiyo Wandayi, that seeks to substitute death sentence with life imprisonment, are some of the efforts towards this.
Key among the reasons given are that the death sentence is final, irrevocable and irreversible.
On the same note, it is worth noting that the effects of wrongful convictions are unimaginable. Though elated upon his release from custody, Simmons said what happened could not ‘undone’.
The criminal justice process begins with the police -the institution mandated to investigate crimes, gather relevant evidence and charge suspects.
When a crime is committed, there are cases where innocent people may be arrested and guilty people go free. However, such cases can be minimized if they get it right from the very beginning.
Our Constitution stipulates that every suspect has the right to a fair trial, which includes the right to be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved.
The fundamental principle was aptly captured by Sir William Blackstone (1723 to 1780), the English jurist behind the Blackstone Formulation, who categorically stated that protecting the innocent is important because the consequences of a guilty verdict can be severe.
According to him, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
Records indicate that police and prosecutorial misconduct have also led to wrongful convictions. Such actions include false confessions, perjury, doctored forensic analysis reports, and eyewitness misidentification among others.
Since courts rely on the evidence presented by the police and prosecution, it is incumbent upon them to be professional and act lawfully bearing in mind that it not only a violation of human rights but also immoral to charge innocent people as a result of officers’ wrongdoing.
One of the worst cases was at Ruaraka police station where Martin Manyara murdered by the station commander. The commander then embarked on a scheme to cover up the murder, and even charged one of inmates with the murder.
The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) later withdrew the charges, following a preliminary report by the police oversight body.
Some officers have lied about the circumstances surrounding an arrest or seizure, and in some petty crimes, some accused persons have pleaded guilty to the charges to avoid the lengthy and inconveniencing court processes.
It is a fact that some ‘offences’ can be easily manufactured by the arresting officers and have the suspects charged in court.
Though the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, in most cases it is extremely difficult for such suspects to defend themselves against the accusations.
Guns and drugs, for example, can be easily planted, even without corroborating evidence or eye witnesses.
Independent investigations have also shown that some rogue officers normally rush suspects to court as one way of settling scores or to shield their colleagues from prosecution.
In one of the cases, a foreigner was charged in a Naivasha court with sodomy after the wife, a Kenyan, colluded with detectives.
By Zadock Angira
The Author of this commentary is a Senior Crime and Investigative Reporter and Chairman of Crime Journalists Association of Kenya (CJAK)