Police Bias

Hillary Clinton seemed extremely uncomfortable when confronted by Ricky Jackson earlier this month about her support for the death penalty. This is not surprising: Jackson’s wrongful death sentence four decades ago was the direct result of Ohioan police coercing a 12 year-old boy to make a false statement that implicated Jackson in murder. Jackson escaped execution only because of a technicality. He was finally exonerated after spending a staggering 39 years behind bars.

Clinton herself aptly summed up Jackson’s experience:
“What happened to you is a travesty.” 

According to Clive Stafford Smith there is a wider problem with police investigations:
“Of the alternatives, police bias is the most insidious and wide-spread threat to justice. Indeed, the law-enforcement system is structured to select not the people best suited to the job, but rather those who are most likely to make mistakes…
“The studies demonstrate that there is a set of law-enforcement value judgements – a police ‘subculture’ – that has remained relatively unchanged over many years. Descriptive terms applied to ‘the policeman’s character profile’ include ‘conservative’, ‘suspicious’ and ‘cynical’, and sometimes ‘authoritarian’. Unfortunately, ‘suspicious’ does not imply self-doubt; rather, it indicates a willingness to believe the worst about the suspect. ‘Cynical’ tends to indicate a refusal to accept a plausible explanation, if it is made by the ‘wrong’ person.”*

The police involved in Jeffrey Wogenstahl’s case appear to have fitted this prototype: the evidence suggests that they willingly believed the worst about Jeff, and failed to consider plausible alternative explanations for events. There is no evidence of a police investigation into anyone other than Jeff.

The police officers’ attitude would then have set in train the events that eventually led to Jeff’s conviction. Almost certainly the prosecution would have been predisposed to accept law enforcement’s version of events, confident that “the police only arrest guilty people in the first place”.**  And Jeff was unfortunate enough to have been tried in Hamilton County, notorious for its prosecutor misconduct.*** In the event, Hamilton County prosecutors excelled themselves in committing what a federal judge later called ‘plain and plentiful’ and ‘wholly improper’ prosecutor misconduct.****

Add to this the likelihood that judges would have avoided making decisions that could lose them votes, and the square would have been circled.†

Jeff’s case is a sad study in Ohioan ‘justice’, and all the more scandalous because his is a death penalty case: he has an execution date next year. It is time for the courts, and the public, to recognize that his innocence claim has merit. He deserves to be heard.

* From Clive Stafford Smith, Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America (Vintage, 2013), Chapter 7 The Police, p. 116
** From Clive Stafford Smith, Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America (Vintage, 2013), Chapter 6 The Prosecutor, p. 94
Stafford Smith also writes (on the same page) “No matter what focus prosecutors initially bring to the job, there is plenty of evidence that they gradually learn to emphasise convictions as the primary goal, as compared to some amorphous and liberal notion of ‘justice’.”
*** In a July 12 2016 article about the Ohio death penalty in CityBeat, Jeff Gamso, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, is quoted in the ‘Legal gamesmanship’ section as saying:
“Prosecutorial misconduct — now you’re talking. Hamilton County and Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) lead the pack there. God knows they lead the pack for sheer number of cases of prosecutorial misconduct…”
**** State v. Wogenstahl. 07-4285. United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. February 2012. Pages 48-49 (Moore, J., concurring). uscourts. Web. August 24 2014.
† See Clive Stafford Smith, Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America (Vintage, 2013), Chapter 13 The Judge, p. 209: “Nobody has ever run a judicial campaign on being fair to criminals, and securing votes is an increasingly expensive exercise.”
See also posts about judges on this website, The Root of Unfairness, and Judges Don’t Care


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