The Titanic Effect...And The Criminal Justice System
It is both astonishing, not to mention deeply disturbing, how the serious - and potentially fatal - flaws in our current 'criminal justice' system bear a remarkable similarity to those of the ill-fated ship, the Titanic. What is equally alarming is that no one realizes just how similar until we or someone we know has a personal head-on collision with the "iceberg."
The "collision" occurs when the very first criminal accusation or allegation is made. It doesn't matter by whom. Just the fact that it has been made, against us or a friend or loved one is enough for us to see that things have dramatically changed. The secure belief that we held as children and a younger citizen, that the police were our friends, doesn't apply when we or those close to us are accused. When that happens, we have already been judged "guilty" in the minds of the law enforcement community, although we may refuse to realize it.
This is the first stage of the Titanic Effect; our "ship" is slowly sinking, we just don't know it yet. If we personally are accused, we talk unguardedly with authority figures, believing the old myths, such as "just tell the truth, and everything will be all right." Too often, that belief serves just one purpose, to lead to an arrest, and if we're not fortunate enough to hire an expensive attorney, a jail cell, where we're forced to spend time awaiting trial, which often takes several months.
That is the second stage of the Titanic effect, and from that point on, the proverbial "ship" just keeps sinking further down. By the time we or a loved one is finally found "guilty," – often due to ineffective assistance of defense counsel, and prosecutorial/judicial misconduct – the "ship" (the Constitutional protections we once took for granted before the collision) has already gone under. We are left struggling in the legal "water," grabbing whatever we can find to stay afloat, hoping desperately for rescue, in the form of appeals or writs of habeas corpus, that often never comes.
A few legal "life boat" groups however, are available for the fortunate few. The Innocence Project is one such group. Like the real life boats that saved many Titanic victims, Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, Jim Dwyer and their dedicated team of lawyers and legal professionals have rescued many of the wrongfully convicted with DNA testing. The problem is, just as on the real Titanic, there aren't enough of these groups. Just as one life boat couldn't hold all the people trapped aboard the Titanic, one legal organization cannot serve all of those who are currently serving prison sentences for crimes they never committed. We need more; to rescue those who are still struggling...and hoping desperately for deliverance.
Concerned private legal groups in each state need to form their own Innocence Commission, each with two divisions; the first to handle cases where DNA testing can exonerate wrongfully convicted petitioners, the second to handle non-DNA cases. It was the Northern California Innocence Project that came to the rescue of John Stoll, one of the victims of the notorious
Until this happens, anyone falsely accused of a crime stands a very good chance of becoming another victim of the Titanic Effect, with little to no chance of hope or rescue. Personally, I'd like to see that effect avoided, as much as humanly possible. Establishing more private Innocence Commissions or Projects, for both DNA and non-DNA evidence, would be a positive step in the right direction.