Michael Hanline was imprisoned for 36 years for a crime he did not commit. This week in Ventura, he was freed when it was determined that the proof against him was insufficient. A DNA analysis exonerated him. The district attorney’s decision not to share documents demonstrating that someone else had committed the crime with the defense was key to the jury’s decision to confine Hanline for more than half of his life.
This type of injustice is more common that is thought. It is an outrage to think that district attorneys may not suffer the consequences. Otherwise, how can we explain that Kern County public prosecutor Robert Murray remains in his post after he falsified a transcription in English of a conversation that never took place in which the suspect confessed to abusing children? When the lie was found, Murray said that it had been a “joke.” He still has his job. Because of this, the accused was freed; a good thing if he was innocent, a bad thing if he was guilty.
A report by the Northern California Project found that, between 1997 and 2009, there were 707 cases of district attorney misconduct. In only 6 cases was the prosecutor reprimanded. In nearly 80% of the cases, the verdict stood regardless of the attorney’s wrongdoing.
The U.S. judicial system is wired against low-income suspects. To begin with, nearly 90% of all cases never reach a jury. These are decided through settlements where the defendant pleads guilty of a misdemeanor in exchange of risking a heavier punishment in court. District attorneys, overloaded with work, usually encourage these agreements as a practical way to expedite the case, regardless of whether the accused is innocent or guilty.
On trial, district attorneys try to convince the jury by any means that the accused is guilty. They will lie and cheat, often disregarding if the person is innocent, just to “win” the case. Generally, only wealthy defendants are able to fight their case on a level playing field.
This is why the proposal of the Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey to create a unit to review claims of wrongful convictions is welcome. It is a way to recognize that there is a problem. The next step is to dissuade prosecutors from cheating. This is not a game to see who wins. Just ask Hanline.