April 22, 2007

Obstructing Justice – An Injustice Perpetuated By The Courts

Justice delayed is justice denied – this seems like a simple and self-evident truth, but in our politically corrupt contemporary judicial system this truth takes on two completely different and conflicting meanings. Those familiar with this blog are already aware of the case of Mike Lambrix, who has now been on Florida’s death row for over 23 years, (See, Condemning An Innocent Man) and his continuous fight to compel the courts to expidite review of his appeals. For over 9 years Lambrix’s now substantiated claim of actual innocence has been pending before the lower state court despite Lambrix’s own aggressive efforts to compel the court to provide timely review and reach a final disposition in his case.

Confronted with the lower court and the state prosecutors consistently obstructing timely review Lambrix petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to compel that lower state court to expedited review, but that court refused to take any action. Lambrix has now filed a petition with the United States Supreme Court arguing that his protected constitutional right to timely review of his capital post conviction appeals has been violated -- but will the Supreme Court intervene and hold the state as equally accountable for unnecessary delays as it so often does in holing death row prisoners who fail to “timely” file their appeals? Or is the Supreme Court’s push to expedite a “finality” in capital cases only applicable when its objective is to carry out an execution – and not applicable when the objective is to expedite justice? (The petition can be read in its entirety here.)

If the courts and politicians are so committed to expediting review of capital post conviction appeals under the pretense of promoting a timely “finality,” then why is it they only want to expedite review when their objective is to carry out executions – and not when the state itself deliberately obstructs timely review of a legitimately pled claim of actual innocence? If this is really about objectively expediting a finality in capital cases, then shouldn’t both the courts and politicians be as equally committed to expediting review when a claim of actual innocence is raised as they are when they seek to expedite an execution?

But again, it’s not about expediting justice – it’s about expediting executions. Think about it… the only time politicians and courts pass laws that they claim are intended to speed up death row appeals is when these laws are imposed exclusively against the condemned prisoner. Not even once has Congress or The Supreme Court ever passed a law that imposes any form of sanctions against the state if and when the state is the party responsible for deliberately delaying timely review.

The public remains conveniently oblivious to the insidious nature of these politically motivated campaigns to expedite review of capital post conviction appeals – what it is really about is devising insidious ways to deliberately circumvent a full and fair review of capital cases. (See, Supreme Court Slams Death Row Appeals.) But when confronted with a timely filed and legitimately pled claim of actual innocence, the politicians and the courts no longer have an interest in pushing for an expedited review as if the wrongfully convicted and condemned person is then exonerated that exoneration undermines their true objective of promoting more executions.

The simple truth is that allowing wrongfully convicted and condemned prisoners to fairly prove their innocence undermines public confidence in the judicial system and erodes public support for the death penalty itself. In recent years over 125 men and women have been judicially exonerated and released from death rows across the county. As the public has become aware of the inherent fallibility of our judicial system support for capital punishment itself has substantially declined.

Incredibly, confronted with this substantial decline, both conservative politicians and the conservative judicial activists on our courts have responded by pushing for even more limitations on death row appeals, especially limiting collateral post conviction appeals – the very type of appeal traditionally used to expose an injustice. By devising disingenuous means in which to effectively procedurally bar condemned prisoners from pursuing these appeals – thus eliminating any means in which to present the evidence necessary to prove their innocence; the embarrassment of having so many wrongful convictions exposed is circumvented.

But is this insidious practice of deliberately circumventing review of a legitimate claim of actual innocence only really painting our judicial system into a corner? Although it can be argued that most of these death row claims of innocence are specious, at best, many of these seemingly specious claims have proven to be substantiated upon full review.

Public confidence in our judicial system is dependent upon the perceived integrity of the courts themselves. Even with a marginal majority of our population still supporting the death penalty, no person of moral conscience supports a system that would inevitably result in executing innocent people. Advocating the execution of a guilty person can be called “justice.” but inevitably executing even one innocent person can only be called murder and in a constitutional democracy advocating the execution of even one innocent person makes murderers out of all of us.

Assume for a moment that a condemned prisoner does develop evidence to substantiate his long pled claim of innocence. Before our society carries out that execution, don’t we have a moral obligation to fully a fairly address that claim of innocence? Equally so, when a condemned prisoner properly presents a legitimately pled claim of actual innocence to the courts, then don’t the courts themselves have a moral obligation to ensure that timely review is provided? If justice delayed is justice denied, then isn’t the ultimate injustice that of deliberately delaying the probably exoneration of an innocent man?

Think about it for a moment… what conceivable purpose does the state (or the courts) have in deliberately obstructing timely review of a legitimate actual innocence claim? Being wrongfully convicted and condemned to death itself is an injustice of such extreme proportion that it can never truly be remedied. Even if the innocent person is ultimately exonerated and released from death row, the actual irreparable injury of being condemned to death; the many years of solitary confinement confronting that unjustified sentence of death; has already been irreversibly inflicted and cannot be undone. ( See, Bowels of the Beast: Condemned to a Fate Worse Than Death).

Lambrix has already been on Florida’s death row well over 23 years, with his substantiated claim of actual innocence based upon exculpatory evidence deliberately concealed by the prosecutor now pending before the lower state court for over 9 years. If Lambrix’s claim has no merit, then why is the lower court and the state deliberately delaying review? Is Lambrix’s case an exception? Or is this deliberate deprivation of timely review of a substantiated claim of actual innocence actually a policy and practice condoned by the courts? Do our courts collaborate with the state to deliberately obstruct and deny timely review in capital cases that present a legitimate claim of actual innocence?

Consider the case of Frank Lee Smith, a poor man convicted of allegedly raping and killing an 8 year old girl in Broward County, Florida. There were no witnesses to the crime, but a witness did allegedly see him leaving the house where the little girl’s body was later found. For many years Smith screamed he was innocent to anyone who would listen—but very few would. After many years on death row the science of DNA testing was introduced into the judicial system and finally Smith had hope of proving his innocence.

In 1991 Smith’s court appointed lawyers filed the necessary legal action to have the evidence recovered at the crime scene tested, only to then have the State of Florida obstruct any DNA testing of that evidence. Smith’s case dragged out in the lower state court for many years when finally --9 years later!-- testing was completed and concluded that Smith actually was innocent – and even identified the true perpetrator.

But the injustice deliberately perpetuated against Frank lee Smith by allowing the state to deliberately obstruct timely review of his claim of innocence could never be remedied and justice could never be served – several moths before the DNA test results finally were released, Frank Lee Smith died of cancer while still on Florida’s death row. (See, Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied.)

By allowing the state to deliberately obstruct and delay timely review Smith’s exoneration was a hollow victory – Smith still died a wrongfully convicted and condemned man.

When our courts effectively collaborate with the state to deliberately obstruct and deny timely review of a legitimately pled claim of actual innocence then our courts themselves become responsible for perpetuating the ultimate injustice against an innocent man. The reality of it is that these same politicians and justices who relentlessly advocate expediting death row appeals under this pretense of promoting a timely “finality” actually only want to expedite executions – not justice.

If the Supreme Court is so willing to protect the states interest in expediting review of capital cases when the objective is to expedite executions, then why won’t the Supreme Court recognize the wrongfully convicted and condemned prisoner’s right to timely review of a legitimately pled claim of actual innocence?

When it comes down to it, our courts have a constitutional responsibility not only to enforce laws intended to punish the guilty but even more so, to protect the innocent from unjustified punishment. When our courts deliberately turn a blind eye when state prosecutors first wrongfully convict and condemn an innocent man, then when evidence of that prosecutorial misconduct is finally exposed, allows the state to deliberately deny timely review, effectively allowing the ultimate injustice to be indefinitely perpetuated against an innocent man, then our courts have failed to carry out their constitutional responsibility.

Equality and fairness are the cornerstones of justice. If our courts are willing to prohibit a condemned prisoner from filing a substantiated claim of innocence because he failed to timely file the claim (See, Herrara V. Collins 506 U.S. 390 (1993)), then equally so – when a condemned prisoner does timely file a legitimate claim of actual innocence and the state obstructs and denies timely review, then equality and fairness demand that the state be procedurally barred from any further defense, and relief summarily granted, as Lambrix now argues in his petition presently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. To hold otherwise would only encourage the states to obstruct justice and the resulting injustice, would be perpetuated as a result of and by our courts.

(note: comments to this article are invited)