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The Innocence Project and Spirit of the Lawyer Statesman. A cargo de Maria Sastre Muntaner



El 90% de los casos penales en Estados Unidos acaba con un acuerdo de culpabilidad con la fiscalía. A su vez, las cifras oficiales indican que se han exonerado 2,551 personas desde 1989 ¿Qué está ocurriendo con la presunción de inocencia? ¿Quienes están dispuestos a sacrificar su tiempo y trabajo por ejercer la labor de defender a personas condenadas injustamente? ¿A quién le corresponde sanar esos errores cometidos por la justicia?

The Innocence Project and Spirit of the Lawyer Statesman

How difficult it is to convict an innocent person? It is estimated that over 10 million Americans are arrested every year. Could you imagine the combined populations of Los Angeles and New York City arrested every year? Of course we need dangerous people removed from our communities, but how many people in America are really that dangerous? How many people need to be in prison? There are now over 5000 jails and prisons in the United States, more than colleges and universities. In many parts of America, particularly in the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses.

If you ever do find yourself wrongfully convicted, try to contact The Innocence Project. The Innocence Project is dedicated utilizing DNA evidence as a means to exculpate individuals of crimes for which they were wrongfully convicted. Its attorneys  represent clients seeking post-conviction DNA testing to prove their innocence. For this reason, the Innocence Project accepts only cases in which newly discovered scientific evidence can prove that a convicted person is factually innocent. To date, 365 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 20 who served time on death row.

The services of this non-profit organization echoes the spirit of a previous generation of US lawyers who conceived their highest aim to be the attainment of the virtue of “practical wisdom”. Practical wisdom can best be understood as a virtue acquired by lawyers who strive to go beyond technical mastery of the law, those who cultivate an appreciation for the value of good judgment when it comes to matters within the legal system. It is a virtue of character,  and was once considered part of the professional ideal for lawyers, an ideal that is unfortunately fading in the legal profession.

Wrongful convictions may result from a plethora of causes. For example, mistaken eyewitness identifications – which are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in sexual assault and robbery cases – or false confessions – which are the cause of approximately 15% of all wrongful convictions.

It could be difficult to understand why a person would wrongly confess to a crime they did not commit. Researchers who study this phenomenon have determined that young people who do not understand their rights and are taught to please authority figures, and are therefore particularly vulnerable. In fact, the infamous “Central Park Five” case is an illustration of this phenomenon, in which 5 teenagers were sentenced between 5 and 12 years for confessing to crimes they did not commit.

There is a sense that individuals accused of a crime “deserve” their punishment. However,  this sentiment should never violate a cornerstone of a free and just society: the right to a fair trial. Despite the difficulty in preserving this right, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is a foundational notion of justice across western democracies. However, in our today’s media culture, where TV cameras are ubiquitous and headlines aim to produce knee-jerk reactions, the craving for punishment has never been stronger. People want to see others punished, regardless of the evidence. The general public fails to appreciate the value of the presumption of innocence.

All these facts underscore the value of attorneys in a society. Earlier generations of American lawyers saw the attainment of practical wisdom as their ultimate professional goal. They understood that this wisdom was a character trait that one acquired only by becoming a person of good judgment, and not just an expert in the law. Cultivating and exercising this trait was a professional ideal referred to as the lawyer-statesman ideal, a term coined by Anthony T. Kronman, the Sterling Professor at Yale Law School.

This ideal captured the qualities of practical wisdom, exceptional persuasive powers, a devotion to the public good, altruism, empathy for others, and a sharp mind.

Since 1989, there have been tens of thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued until DNA testing (prior to conviction) proved that they were wrongly accused. So, how dos DNA testing make a difference in the criminal justice system? This is the crux of the matter that Barry Charles Scheck, the lawyer from O.J Simpson’s “Dream Team” thought of when he founded The Innocence Project as a nonprofit organization.

Mr. Scheck cares about the American legal system. Illustrating the work done by his organization is best done by referring to a few of the cases it has been involved with:

  • Mr. Godschalk’case. A man who spent seven of his fifteen years of incarceration fighting for access to DNA evidence. In 1987, Mr. Godschalk was convicted of rape and burglary in Pennsylvania. The conviction was based on an eyewitness’ identification and a confession later proven to be false. It was not until November of 2000 that a Federal District Court granted access to the DNA testing after contacting the Innocence Project in 1995 – as a result of Mr. Godschalk’s case, Pennsylvania introduced and later passed a law creating access to DNA evidence.
  • Royal Clark, a man who was exonerated after spending 17 years in prison for an armed robbery.
  • Archie Williams, who was exonerated after 36 years for rape and attempted murder.
  • Malcolm Alexander, who was exonerated after 38 years for rape with the only evidence against him was the eyewitness identification of the victim.
  • Robert Jones, also exonerated after almost 24 years for rape, robbery and kidnapping.
  • Gleen Davis, also exonerated after 14 years and sentenced to life in prision without possibility of parole for the second-degree murder.

To conclude, this nonprofit organization represents the spirit and the ideals of the lawyer statesman. The attorneys involved in rectifying these miscarriages of justice are temporarily suspending their own interests to bring innocent people back home to their families. Their work serves to fight against the notion that the justice system is just some cold, calculating machine set to maximize the number of convictions. Sometimes we need to take a step back and recalibrate how we view the justice system, that those affected are not just pawns in a game, but real people with hopes and dreams.

Maria Sastre Muntaner

28 de agosto de 2020

Maria Sastre Muntaner

Graduada en Derecho en la Universidad Ceu San Pablo de Madrid, dónde continué mis estudios realizando el Master de Acceso a la Abogacía y Titulo Experto en los Negocios. Trabajé en el mundo del derecho penal durante 1 año hasta que en junio de 2019 empecé un programa intensivo en Yale University, denominado «U.S legal system». Actualmenteme encuentro trabajando para Elke A. Hofmann Attorneys At Law, situado en Manhattan y especializado en la entrada, gestión y asesoramiento de empresas en la industria de hostelería en New York State

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