Reforming the United States prosecution system is no longer a fringe movement by a few lone rangers pursuing justice for obscure cases. Although initiatives such as the Innocence Project have brought many exoneration cases into the limelight, there remain many more wrongfully convicted persons behind bars. Until recently, this data was hidden under piles of case files and pleas of innocence. Now, the National Registry of Exonerations is shedding light on what these figures genuinely are.
So far, the registry has recorded 2,265 exonerations with a combined 20,080 years lost behind bars. This data paints a grim picture of the current state of the prosecution and the criminal justice system in the United States. As Samuel R. Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, and the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations puts it, “the cases (of exoneration) are fascinating and important, but they wear on me: So many of them are stories of destruction and defeat.”
At the front lines of the movement are not just celebrities and political heavyweights like Kim Kardashian, John Legend, Senator Nancy Skinner, and Governor Gavin Newsom but also those like Jeffrey Deskovic, Amy Ralston Povah, and Obie Anthony who upon being exonerated are going back to champion the cause of others wrongfully convicted. One such high-profile wrongful conviction case that has become a cause is that of international fashion designer Anand Jon Alexander in California where he was convicted to life in prison in a trial tainted by prosecutorial misconduct and a grave miscarriage of justice that the justice system seemed to tolerate.
Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent 17 years behind bars for a crime he was later exonerated of and has recently become a lawyer himself, states: “there are many cases that are fraught with prosecutorial misconduct and bad lawyering. It is no wonder there have been so many exonerations.” Anand Jon’s case among many others brings into sharp focus issues that currently bedevil the prosecution system resulting in thousands of wrongful convictions. In most cases, three key points played a crucial role in wrongful conviction – race, religion, and national origin.
Data from the Innocence Project and The National Registry of Exonerations shows that race plays a disproportionate role in wrongful convictions. According to Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom, “wrongful convictions are caused by both systemic flaws in our criminal justice and by external variables.”
External variables include issues such as stereotypes and cross-racial identification. In the case of stereotypes, low minority representation within the system presupposes the notion that in a trial, a minority defendant likely perpetrated the crime. Similarly, cross-racial eyewitness misidentification has been identified as the leading cause of wrongful convictions later overturned through forensic DNA methods.
Race is a major role in many wrongful convictions. In October 2016, out of the 1900 exonerations in the National Registry of Exonerations, 47% of them were of African American heritage despite only 13% of the population being African American. Recently the U.S. Supreme Court “seemed deeply troubled” in cases like Flowers (2019) and Pena Rodriguez (2017) where racial influences affected the fairness of the trial.
Religion, like race, is one of those tactical monkey wrenches that some prosecutors use to inflame the jury and has a pattern throughout American History as playing a part in wrongful convictions and sometimes worse consequences. In cases of prosecutorial misconduct, such as in the case of Anand Jon, the prosecution raised issues related to the defendant’s religious practices as pertinent issues in the case. Although this information should be immaterial from a jury’s perspective, the prosecution understands the effect raising such matters will have on the jury’s deliberations.
As California Deputy DA Young preemptively stated in the Anand Jon case, “I thought earlier when the court ruled we wouldn’t delve into religion, it wouldn’t touch on that area, so I didn’t object to it originally, but I thought it got into the moral, religious, spiritual areas we were trying to stay from.”
It cannot be overemphasized how punitive mentioning such information to a jury is to the outcome of the case. This practice is repeated across the country as prosecutors try to use underhand methods to get a conviction. However, the main issue is not so much that these methods are used, but that the criminal justice system tolerates them.
National origin is closely tied to race when it comes to wrongful convictions. In the Anand Jon case, for example, the prosecution emphasized the defendant’s national origin during opening arguments to paint a picture of a foreigner preying on innocent (white) victims. In the case, the prosecution pointed out details from witnesses that pointed to the defendant’s national origin.
The argument was thus formed that Anand Jon “was a filthy outsider to the community, a ‘dirty’ and ‘smelly’ ‘Hindu from India,’ who read foreign Hebrew symbols ‘from right to left’…” One commentator in the case concluded that such gratuitous remarks played no other role than to “inflame and prejudice the minds of the jurors against the defendant because he happened to be a [South Asian immigrant].” From this example, it is clear how the prosecution can use underhand tactics that influence the case, yet these submissions do not get struck off the record as contravening judicial practice.
Mr. Parker, writing in amicus curiae to Anand Jon Alexander’s case, summarized the judicial misconduct and miscarriage of justice as such, “Mr. Alexander’s conviction has been tainted by myriad due process violations and inescapable prejudice. The role that race, religion, and national origin played in his conviction has shaken (my) belief that South Asians, Middle Easterners, and other minorities can receive equal protection under the laws of this state.” While efforts by entities such as the Innocence Project and other judicial reform efforts are still underway, it should be noted that wrongfully convicted persons such as Anand Jon Alexander will only benefit from such reforms if they come fast, well before such individuals have incurred years of wasted lives behind bars.
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