When The Sovereign Errs
Imagine being placed in prison for the rest of your life for a crime you did not commit. Suppose the state were forced to admit its error. What would justice require in such a case?
Connecticut once again faces the drama of men released after long, long incarceration for crimes they did not commit. Ronald Taylor and George Gould were released from prison after serving 16 years for a murder a Superior Court judge said they did not commit.
The case is dramatic because the stakes were so high: But the sad fact is that no one really knows how many innocent men and women are sent to prison each year by well-meaning jurors. We celebrate our criminal justice system, and it may well be better than most, but in the celebration we spend too little time counting the cost of the inevitable failures.
A Connecticut Superior Court judge ruled last month that the two men were victims of "manifest injustice." They were convicted killing of a New Haven store owner in 1993. However, the state's star witness recanted, and the men's DNA was not found on key prosecution evidence.
The state's key witness testified at the original trial she saw the defendants leave the store shortly after a gunshot was fired. But last year she admitted that was a lie, and that she was interrogated relentlessly by police as she suffered the effects of heroin withdrawal. A detective told her he would get her heroin if she told them what happened. And what happened, the officer insisted, turned out to be an out and out fabrication.
Sadly, the men cannot sue the state for this miscarriage of justice. That is because the state is immune from suit. The doctrine of sovereign immunity serves to shield the state from responsibility for its errors. It makes a mockery of justice.
In Connecticut, the state can consent to be sued. A party has one year from the time of their injury, in the Taylor and Gould case a cause of action could arguably accrue from the date of their release, to petition the Claims Commission for permission to sue. Sometimes the legislature grants permission through a special act, as was the case in the matter of James Calvin Tillman who was released from prison in 2006 after serving 18 years for rape. He was awarded $5 million for his wrongful conviction by lawmakers.
Those wrongfully convicted of a crime ought not to be required to ask the state for permission to seek justice. They should be able to bring suit as a matter of right, and to press their claim for money damages before a jury. To do otherwise is to value innocence too little, and to let the state off the hook to easily for gravest injustice of all: the imprisonment, often for life, of an innocent person. We need a new tort. How else to hold the State accountable and provide it with incentives to assure that justice is done?
Hat Tip: WD