Texas executes innocent man; no one held accountable

DNA testing recently revealed that Texas wrongly executed Claude Jones in 2000. Mr.  Jones had always maintained his innocence and requested DNA testing.  Hair found at the crime scene was essentially the only link between Jones and the liquor store murder.  The Innocence Project alleges a memo requesting DNA testing was never delivered to George W. Bush while he was governor (full story here). Mr. Jones’ case slipped through the cracks as a result, and he was executed as planned.

“The DNA results prove that testimony about the hair sample on which this entire case rests was just wrong,” said Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project. “This is yet another disturbing example of a miscarriage of justice in Texas capital murder prosecutions. Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life.”

Now, for a moment, let us consider what would happen in this scenario if the people responsible for this situation were not government agents (police, prosecutors, judges, etc.)  Let us pretend for just a second that they are regular people like you and me.  We shouldn’t have to pretend, really, since the government is comprised of everyday people.  I don’t think most people believe government employees are generally better human beings, or in a higher caste than the rest of us peons.  But in case anyone out there is of that sentiment – let’s pretend for the time being that they are equal to the rest of us.

If an ordinary band of people had kidnapped an innocent man, thrown him in a cage, accused him of murder, set up some sham process to declare he had committed that murder, and then killed him, several consequences would surely ensue.  Some of these actors would be charged with kidnapping, others for assault and/or battery, and some for murder.  In addition, the victim’s family might be able to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress or wrongful death, among other causes of action, depending on the circumstances.

Now let’s look at what the punitive possibilities are for these police, prosecutors,  judges and executioners who were involved in Mr. Jones’ murder.

Nothing.

The Supreme Court held in Imbler v. Pachtman that the absolute immunity of public prosecutors was “based on the policy of protecting the judicial process.” As, such, prosecutors face no recourse for even the most malicious of actions – knowingly using falsified evidence.  Prosecutors have either qualified or absolute immunity depending on the circumstances.  At any rate, prosecutors are immune from suit for monetary damages. If a prosecutor knowingly tries to put a person in jail with no basis in law or fact, the victim has no recourse in civil court.

Police do not have absolute civil immunity, but have qualified immunity.  Generally, this means they are immune from civil suit (i.e. they are not personally held accountable like everyone else is) for various things they commit in the course of their employment.

This is why in Mr. Jones’ case, nobody responsible for his murder will be held accountable or face reasonable consequences.   In fact, the court has said so itself, in Stump v. Sparkman (a particularly heinous case in which a judge conspired with a mother to secretly sterilize a young girl),

As early as 1872, the Court recognized that it was “a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in exercising the authority vested in him, [should] be free to act upon his own convictions, without apprehension of personal consequences to himself.”

After removal of all the evasive legal vomit in between, the message is clear – “A judicial officer…should be free to act…without apprehension of personal consequence to himself.” There is no other way to interpret it; it can only mean that government employees, in particular, judges, should not face personal consequences when they commit terrible abuses.

After you strip away fancy titles and the evasive language of the law, the only basis  for this is that everyone was just doing their job, and they shouldn’t be punished for just doing their jobs.  You know who else was just doing their jobs, and caused innocent people to suffer and die?  The Nazis.  Mao’s Red Guard.  The Japanese Imperial Army.  These guys, who arrested people for feeding the homeless.  These guys, who sexually assaulted a woman after she called them for help during a traffic accident.  These guys, who arrest, beat, or involuntarily lock people into mental institutions, allegedly for their own safety. For the last time (actually, probably not for the last time, since some seem to have a hard time grasping this concept), doing your job is not an excuse for torture, murder or other crimes.

With tyrannical nations, it is mob-mentality, or concert of action of many individuals, under the guise of the greater good that drives grave injustices.  It is never one person.  In Nazi Germany, it was never one person responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews.  Some Nazis enforced curfew.  Some kidnapped them and transported them to camps.  Some were just guards at the concentration camps.  Some killed just a few Jews in pogroms. The justification for all this was ostensibly to protect the safety, welfare and bloodline of Aryans.

In the case of Japan, it was the Japanese Imperial Army that raped  women, decapitated civilians in contests, and played soccer with fetuses they sliced out of women’s wombs.  But the reason they could do this with no remorse is because the institutions in Japan taught them their Asian neighbors were subhuman, because someone in government told them it was their job, and because various people along the way contributed with coercion and violence.  The justification for this was for the greater good and glory of all of Japan.

No doubt those who defend the justice system will say that Mr. Jones’ death was merely a casualty of the pressing need to keep all Americans safe, and to imprison dangerous criminals.

With all systemic atrocities, whether on a small or large scale, every violent actor along the chain leading up to genocide, murder, or the imprisonment of multitudes of people who committed victimless “crimes” will attempt to assert their innocence by arguing they were merely a minor cog in the grand scheme of things.  Often, they will all say it was for the greater good of society.  Yet, if we allow moral responsibility to be diluted in this manner, we will never learn from history.

State apologists may object to use of the word “murder” in the case of Mr. Jones, because Mr. Jones received “due process,” had a jury trial, and went through the legal system before he was wrongly executed.  This is really a negligible distinction. Mr. Jones was an innocent man who was taken by force, against his will, locked up, and then killed.  If an ordinary citizen did exact same thing, it would be murder, but because Mr. Jones was killed under the auspices of the establishment and the law, his tragedy is treated as a petty malfunction of the “justice” system that everyone so blindly accepts.

Process means nothing if it leads to an unjust result.  Surely, to acquire such power and dominance, the Nazis and Japanese Imperialists were well-organized and followed a process as well; following process would not exempt them from war crimes.

Immunity for government officials is at the root of the problem, because like the idea of genocide, it assumes a certain class of people have a legal right to act grave injustices upon another class of people without facing consequences.  Maintaining immunities essentially creates an underclass of people who are at the mercy of those with greater discretion, greater power, and who do not fear retribution.

For very other few professions are there such sweeping immunities.  Stores and other private establishments get sued even when someone slips in a pool of water they accidentally leave in their aisles – certainly they get sued if they maliciously beat or kill a customer (and thus, it seems stores rarely do this).  Doctors and lawyers get sued for malpractice. People get sued when they drive recklessly and injure others.    People get sued for committing assault, battery, false imprisonment and a wide variety of other torts, in addition to suffering criminal penalties.  It is hard to defend the hyper-litigious nature of the current legal system, but at least to some extent, the possibility of having to pay money, make amends, or otherwise make a victim whole deters people from purposely harming others.

People require such disincentives from time to time because they are not angels; nor are they selfless robots.  This is a point that I would think obvious, but the mere existence of immunities for members of government is evidence it is not.  People who acquire a government position do not suddenly cease to be human, and lose their very flawed, self-interested human qualities after an application process and some training programs.  Those gods in government need the same punishments, consequences and disincentives as the rest of us.

As it stands, there is no such disincentive for law enforcement.  They can do pretty much whatever the fuck they want.  For the most part, they aren’t criminally prosecuted, and they can’t be sued.  The tragic case of Claude Jones and the utter lack of recourse is evidence of this.  Is it any surprise that the institution has grown abusive and consistently lacks accountability?

EPN

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Georgia Sand

Georgia (George) Sand is an attorney located in sunny California. She enjoys beer, jogging, the beach, music, and chatting with her cats in her spare time.