By: Rownak Tabassum
American author Barbara Kingsolver once wrote, “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” Our memories are not always synonymous with reality; we forget details or misremember entirely. More often than we as a society are willing to admit, innocent people are convicted because of human error, especially in the judicial process. When we or someone we know is hurt in the most unspeakable ways, we ask why, how and who caused it; and if we can’t find those answers, we create our own. We search for truth under every rock, in every corner, on top of the highest shelves, and in the darkest waters. When does the truth become too muddy to find? When all efforts seem unfruitful, why do we keep searching for answers when there seems to be none? The need for closure, answers, payment, and retribution are what drive us onward. When victims are no longer alive to tell the tale, the people around us start to lead us in different directions. Our emotions colour our memories. The decay of our understanding of reality shifts into the land of imagination where truth does not belong; our minds start to steer us away from the truth. Over time, the older we get, the stories we hear, the delusions we hoped to be true, start to fall away.
Wrongful convictions do not fall into the hands of a single individual. Sometimes the fault lies with detectives who have something to prove or want to gain a reputation, which often leads them to pursue the wrong story. When the police start to believe a story too much, the need for answers results in tunnel vision that causes them to steer evidence in the direction they want it to go, however implausible it may be. Sometimes it is the victims themselves who use all their courage to look their attackers dead in the eyes while being attacked, taking in the details of their face to recall it again in court. Yet the fear and adrenaline in that moment of immense pain, does not allow them to fully recall these details accurately. Many times it is the narrative presented to us, it is us as a nation, sometimes it is we who victimize, racialize, and corner the innocent people who we think make our streets unsafe, however untrue those stereotypes may be. Amanda Knox, a wrongfully convicted woman whose story was sensationalized in the global media, once said in an interview, “It is the story that compels, not the truth.”
In investigations where detectives lean into their biases, they have people sign false confessions, which are more common than one could fathom to believe. Investigators provide little access to food or water, deny interrogates the ability to use the bathroom, and often physically injure them. In 1991, Toronto mother Maria Shepherd was accused by the police for the death of her step-daughter, Kassandra, who had already been ill and in hospital for a long time. During the long interrogation, Maria questioned her innocence. She was shown evidence connecting her to the crime and the police threatened her with never seeing her children again. She cracked under the pressure and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. After three years in prison, a reinvestigation and new evidence showed that Kassandra had died of natural causes and the work conducted by pediatric forensic pathologist Charles Smith had been fabricated, putting Maria away for crimes she did not commit. Dr. Charles Smith had drawn diagrams to match Kassandra’s supposed injuries to match a watch that Maria owned.
Jennifer Thompson believed that she had memorized the details of her attacker’s face and when shown a lineup she picked out Ronald Cotton, putting him away for over ten years. He was innocent and his conviction was based on a flawed eyewitness account. Is it possible for someone to forget the face of their attacker? In fact, it is scientifically proven to be more common for people suffering that trauma to forget and miss details because of the shock caused by the incident. Other times, people are provided with a misleading lineup. A rape victim in Ada, Oklahoma had been convinced by police to believe that her attacker had a gold tooth, when in fact he did not and was shown a lineup only of men with gold teeth. She picked from what she was given and when the Innocence Project reinvestigated the case, they found that the police had coerced the victim into believing this detail in order to match the description of Perry Lott, a man whom their biases guided them to target.
Amanda Knox had been wrongfully accused of murdering her roommate Meredith Kercher, while they studied abroad in Italy. Why would a young adolescent with no criminal background, commit such a horrific crime? She recounts that the investigators, with the world watching, seemed to be putting on a show of valour and diligence. The small city of Perugia struggling to keep their reputation as a tourist destination, could not have an international student murdered by a local and thus began to spin Amanda Knox as a sex-crazed killer. The latter story being more sensational and interesting, garnered significant attention until the world began to accept it as truth.
Many times, it is societal constructs that put people behind bars. We convict the people who already suffer from systemic discrimination, racism, gender bias and lower socioeconomic status; they are people we do not want in our world. In 1989, a high profile white woman was assaulted and raped in Central Park and tensions were high between black and white communities. The police put away five innocent black teenage boys, known today as the “Central Park Five”, for up to fifteen years for crimes they did not commit. In the late 80s, in the craze against Satanic cults in the Southern United States, three adolescent boys now known as the “West Memphis Three” were put away for the brutal murders of three, second-grade boys. In reality, this case totalled six young boys as victims. The boys who were described as sweet by those who knew them, ableist a little edgy, were found guilty on the account that they listened to Metallica and read Stephen King novels labelling them as Satan worshippers. As times changed and these art forms became more commonplace, it became more and more evident that these boys were wrongfully convicted on false grounds and opinions, rather than hard facts.
A defence attorney is a storyteller, at times a fabricator, hoping to create reasonable doubt. On the television show How to Get Away with Murder, Annalise Keating teaches her students that with a good lawyer and the right price, it is easy enough to stir up doubt and spin the case, in order to free the truly guilty. It is easier still to convict someone who is of low income, coloured, or otherwise, even if they are innocent since most of the time such people cannot afford good lawyers. Public defenders are overworked and underpaid; the more cases they take on, the more money they make. It is easier for them to complete a case in under an hour and put a man in prison, so that the defender can move on to another case, missing major details, forgetting even that the person they put away was a daughter or a son, a parent, a friend.
We want to see the world as good and evil, in black and white, but people are not dichotomies. Detectives and prosecutors are not the knights at a round table, the accused are not always guilty. Our memories can be altered far from the truth given the circumstance. These traumas are a decay of our mind, a decay of our judicial system, and our humanity. There is no monetary value for the time an innocent sits in prison. Evidence points in many different directions depending on the hands it falls into, yet all this evidence will always point at one thing: the existence of human error. Forever will we be looking for clarity, for retribution. That sigh of relief. Closure. Sometimes it cannot be found in this life. It is our faith in God, who is most just, most fair, who sees what we cannot and is the only one to bring us all to the justices we deserve.
* The first image is sourced from google images and the rest are all from cleanpng.com