I knew when I started reading the letters that they had been written dozens, maybe even hundreds of times before. They had been written year after year, to organization after organization, first with hope, then with wariness of the inevitable crushing disappointment, and finally with a bland outward optimism masking numbed resignation. Before the summer was over I learned that the people who read them would follow a similar emotional trajectory. As a summer intern at the Chicago Innocence Project, one of my assignments was to read mail from inmates who claimed to have been wrongfully imprisoned. My job was to determine which cases met the criteria set by our Board of Directors and to pass them up the chain of command for further review. It was a Sisyphean task. The letters never stopped coming. Each signified a life being stolen, an urgent injustice, the commission of a years-long crime yet to be halted. And virtually all of them were doomed to receive the same apologetic letter referring them elsewhere. Like many innocence projects, the guidelines set forth by the Chicago Innocence Project are extremely selective. There are not enough resources for it to be any other way. Some of the limitations are geographic: inmates must fall within driving distance of Chicago if interns are to interview them. Others dictate which crimes are covered: almost exclusively murder cases, with preference given to capital cases. And inmates must not have been present at the crime scene or involved in the crime in any way. Claims of self-defense, or ignorance as to a friend’s homicidal intentions, do not cut it. If the letters overcame these initial hurdles, questionnaires were mailed to the authors. Did the inmate have an alibi? Was there physical evidence linking him or her to the crime? What about plausible alternative suspects? Here, too, promising cases sometimes fell short. Innocence work is a murky business. There is rarely a slam-dunk revelation that turns the case on its head, like the time I received an affidavit by a witness who recanted his testimony and implicated another suspect (in that case, the inmate was sent a questionnaire). Even in cases where the police appear to have engaged in headline-grabbing misconduct, like torturing suspects or threatening family members, their victims tended to have few ironclad alibis and fewer solid alternative suspects. More often it is a mosaic of less dramatic revelations that tilt the scales in the inmate’s favor: discrepancies in witness testimony; lingering questions about forensic testing procedures; allegations of ineffective defense counsel.
For many inmates, though, the sad reality is that the evidence that may set them free is often as circumstantial as the evidence that convicted them in the first place. In one case that I reviewed, everything hinged upon whether an inmate loaned his car to a friend for a fateful few hours, during which time it was allegedly stolen and used in a shooting. In another, the only people able to vouch for an inmate’s alibi were his young daughter’s mother and grandmother – hardly the sort of objective witnesses likely to sway a judge. Reading these accounts, it struck me that many, perhaps even most, of those who have been wrongfully convicted will remain in prison, not because they are guilty but because they cannot prove that they are innocent. The burden of proof is too high, the bias against convicted felons too strong. People do not live their lives in such a way that multiple neutral witnesses can corroborate their every move, but the courts are untroubled by such realities. Under our trigger-happy “justice” system, it is far easier to lock people up than to set them free. And that is by design. I walked away from these letters more convinced than ever of the fundamental injustice of the legal system. Not simply because the inmates echoed one another in their descriptions of brutal cops, weary public defenders, and overzealous prosecutors – ground-level indictments of a society gone mad. But also because of the sheer indifference with which this system steals people’s lives. The prison guards and wardens who keep millions caged never bothered to learn the intricacies of their cases, never bothered to weigh the evidence themselves. They never had to confront the uncertainties that the letters presented. And yet they continue to do their jobs, depriving people of freedom for reasons they do not know. How can a person steal someone’s life without knowing why? Without wanting to know? And what does it say about our system that it could not function without such blind obedience, such thoughtless violence? As the enormity of the problem swam into focus, I grew increasingly frustrated with the limitations of existing advocacy organizations. Innocence projects can make all the difference in the world for the less-unlucky few who meet their selective criteria. But they offer little recourse for the many more who face decades in prison for non-homicide offenses or who were connected to crimes that they did not themselves commit. Even if more innocence projects did have the staff and budget to take cases nationally, to investigate non-murder cases, to assist those who were present at the scene, their efforts would still be hamstrung by the often-underwhelming evidence of innocence that inmates bring to bear. That is to say nothing of those who were not incorrectly convicted but have been punished for crimes that should not be crimes, like those currently incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses. Their plight, too, demands urgent action. I hoped that I would be able to challenge this system through my work this summer. And in a small way, I did, even if that often meant redirecting inmates to organizations better suited to help them. But far more often I felt that I had been given a front-row seat to a vast injustice that I was powerless to stop. The referral letters always closed, “Best wishes in your quest for justice.” For far too many people, best wishes were the best we could do.
-Matthew Kovac Kovac is a senior at Northwestern University, where he studies journalism and history.