Protecting the innocent
Once a person is arrested, there are several layers of involvement before the accused ever has a chance to be convicted.
The district attorney’s office usually must review the facts and decide whether to present the case to a grand jury. Sometimes, Poston refuses to prosecute if he believes there isn’t enough evidence to get a conviction. Other times, he takes the case to a grand jury where citizen members decide for themselves whether to indict.
Even if the district attorney decides to prosecute, a grand jury must in serious felony cases still indict the person for the case to go to court. Such was the case with Green, although Murray claims that “a lot of the evidence didn’t come forward until the case had already been indicted.”
Indictments happen only after a law enforcement officer determines probable cause exists to believe a person committed a crime. In some cases, the officer must first obtain an arrest warrant from a judge who likewise agrees probable cause exists for the arrest.
In cases where an arrest is made without a warrant, a judge must still within 72 hours review the arrest and authorize continued detention.
In felony cases, after an arrest a judge can sometimes deny bond, and that judge is usually different from the judge who signed off on the arrest warrant. In most cases, the defendant enters a plea before the case makes it to trial.
“Less than 1 percent of the cases we receive each year result in jury trials, and most of those trials result in convictions, so the number of not guilty verdicts compared to the total caseload we process is exceedingly small,” Poston said. “Also, recall that the criminal justice system, by design, is intended to err on the side of releasing the guilty rather than on the side of convicting the innocent. The burden of proof at trial — proof beyond a reasonable doubt — is the highest legal standard used anywhere in the world.”
Still, even with so many safeguards in place to protect the innocent, American juries have wrongly convicted American citizens.
The Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted individuals through DNA testing, estimates that between 2.3 percent and 5 percent of all prisoners in the U.S. — at least 20,000 people — are innocent. Since 1989, more than 250 people have been exonerated post-conviction through DNA testing, according to the organization’s website, www.innocenceproject.org.
“More broadly, we know that innocent people are often identified as suspects by law enforcement and that DNA testing often clears them before they go to trial, but that DNA testing is impossible in the vast majority of criminal cases,” according to information on the website.