Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Worst Crime

By Michael

According to most estimates, one out of every two hundred men and women convicted of a felony is innocent. Some of the wrongfully convicted pay fines or do community service and then return to their daily lives. Some go to prison. Some go to death row. Only a few are eventually exonerated and these only after having paid an enormous physical and psychological price.

Nationwide, one out of two hundred adds up to about 10,000 wrongful convictions each year, or let’s say about 150,000 in the years since DNA testing has been widespread. During this time, according to the Innocence Project, “there have been [only] 266 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.” Seventeen of these exonerated people were been sentenced to die. On average, the exonerated men and women – mostly men – had already served thirteen years in prison for crimes that they didn’t commit. Very few non-DNA exonerations have occurred.

Many (but certainly not all) wrongfully convicted men and women have been picked up in the past for other offenses. Many of them have records. By some people’s logic, arresting and convicting past offenders for crimes that they didn’t commit might not be such a bad thing: they’re in the game, getting in trouble, taking risks that make them likely suspects when new crimes occur. Arresting and imprisoning them – even executing them – might be seen as part of a karmic justice system, paying them back for offenses that they’ve undoubtedly committed without being caught.

But I don’t see it this way. Wrongful convictions, it seems to me, are equal to the worst offenses we’re capable of committing against each other. Such convictions bury people alive. They’re the stuff out of which the scariest nightmare fiction could be made. But, intriguingly, very few works of crime fiction have represented wrongful convictions in ways that explore the depths of the nightmare. Like certain narratives of sexual violation and child victimization, this topic might be too dark for even fictional pleasure.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Michael, will we be seeing that topic in one of your future books? I'd read it!

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Sue Ann. I'm working with the topic in something that I'm finishing now -- but indirectly. It's a tricky one to write about, I think: the suspense and fear are very internal. Usually, wrongful convictions and executions appear as subplots -- as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, when Justine is wrongly accused, convicted, and executed for killing Victor's younger brother.

That said, this is a topic that I would love to make central.

Reece said...

I think sometimes prosecutors view wrongful convictions as a kind of collateral damage that's inevitable in the criminal justice system. I'm with you, though -- a wrongful conviction is the worst sort of crime. I'll be interested to see how you touch upon this subject.

Michael Wiley said...

Interesting, Reece: collateral damage scares me. I know that "mistakes will be made," but these mistakes are terribly costly.

I look forward to trying the subject.