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Ruth Ann Dailey email@example.com
Thirty-four years. Stop and think for a moment about all you’ve experienced in the past 34 years.
For me, that represents my entire adult life — all the years since high school, the years I’ve worked, loved, enjoyed and pretty much encountered the world on my own terms.
For Lewis Fogle, those 34 years passed in prison. He spent that time on someone else’s terms — a life term on our terms — for a crime he always insisted he didn’t commit.
Now our government agrees with him — or at least it has confessed it should not have convicted him. He was released Thursday, into the arms of his wife Deb, whom he had married only three months before his arrest all those years ago.
If it weren’t for the work of the Innocence Project, Mr. Fogle, 63, of Indiana County, would have spent the rest of his life behind bars.
For decades now, the phrase “tough on crime” has been a positive description for any political candidate. In the post-war era, as the country suffered an ever-escalating rate of violent crime, we citizens wanted “law and order” leaders who would “throw the book” at criminals.
The most ironic of the phrases used to express our resolve to bring evil-doers to justice, however, is that we’d “get biblical” on them. Perhaps that springs from the well-known words of Genesis: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.”
Or from Exodus: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth …”
But the penalty comes only after the truth has been established, and there our modern courts have sometimes fallen tragically short of the biblical standard. The Innocence Project and other organizations that search for and try to overturn wrongful convictions are revealing that what passes for evidence sufficient to end a person’s life or liberty can be shockingly flimsy.
Mr. Fogle’s is one of these. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of Deann Long, a 15-year-old girl who had been raped and shot in the head.
He was convicted in 1982 for a crime that occurred in 1976. The man who implicated him did so only after being interrogated five times over a five-year period and despite being himself the person last seen with the victim.
On this basis Mr. Fogle was arrested, and at trial, three jailhouse informants testified that he’d confessed while incarcerated. Although no physical evidence connected him to the crime and his family vouched for his whereabouts, he was found guilty of second-degree murder.
Would you vote to convict with only this testimony against him?
An even starker decision overturned in January was that of Joseph Sledge, 70, of North Carolina, who served 37 years for a double murder. He was exonerated when DNA testing showed the hairs found on the victims were not his and when the jailhouse informant recanted his testimony, confessing he’d lied to get leniency himself.
The Bible standard, from Deuteronomy, is that one witness is insufficient to convict of crime but “at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.”
Is it two or three? The graver the crime, the more evidence should be mustered. But what if all three witnesses are jailhouse informants? What if they have, in effect, sold their testimony?
One witness is not enough to convict, but one powerful witness — DNA evidence — has rightly proven sufficient to clear a man’s name. Similar to Mr. Sledge’s case, Mr. Fogle was freed when recent DNA testing demonstrated the semen on Deann Long’s body was not his.
Although DNA evidence enters only 5 to 10 percent of criminal cases, every part of a trial is open to scrutiny, and officials are increasingly willing to reopen matters once routinely denied. States are even establishing their own investigating agencies, such as North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, which requested Mr. Sledge’s exoneration.
The numbers keep climbing. In 2013 a record 83 convictions were overturned nationwide, according to a registry kept by the University of Michigan School of Law. The number dipped to 75 in 2014, but this year’s monthly rate is on track for a total near 100.
Most of us can never imagine the gratitude the Fogles and others must feel toward crusaders for justice, but we all have to be grateful these crusaders exist.
Justice will be miscarried as long as human beings are administering it. We can reduce the frequency — and reduce suffering all around — if we remember this with humility.
Ruth Ann Dailey: firstname.lastname@example.org
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