CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When anyone is charged with a crime, something in human nature makes most people assume the suspect is guilty. But that assumption can be wrong.
Currently, lawyers from the national Innocence Project and a similar project at West Virginia University are trying to free Joseph Buffey, who is serving a 40-year term after he pleaded guilty to raping an 83-year-old Clarksburg woman in 2001. Buffey says he made the plea only because police coerced him for eight hours and prosecutors promised to drop break-in charges against him. DNA evidence finally showed that a different suspect committed the rape -- but Buffey remains in a cell.
Here's a national example from Texas, a place known for harsh prosecutions and many, many executions:
In 1986, Christine Morton of Austin was clubbed to death in her bedroom, while her 3-year-old son was home. When her husband, Michael, came home from work, he found police who quickly focused on him as a suspect, despite his protestations of innocence.
With little actual evidence, prosecutor Ken Anderson won a conviction by calling the husband a brute who bashed his wife because she wouldn't have sex with him. Anderson was named Texas Prosecutor of the Year and became a judge.
Morton served 25 years of his life term while the Innocence Project appealed his case. After long resistance, the prosecutor's office allowed DNA tests on evidence -- and a bandana from the scene contained the wife's blood and DNA of a convicted sex criminal, who had gone on to murder another young woman.
This forced the prosecutor's staff to reveal old files -- which showed that prosecutor Anderson evidently hid reports that could have cleared the innocent husband. One said the couple's little boy recalled that a "monster" with a "big moustache" killed his mother while his father wasn't home. Also, a neighbor said a suspicious man parked nearby and entered woods behind the Morton home.
After these stunning revelations, Morton was ruled innocent and Texas paid him $2 million for his quarter-century of wrongful imprisonment. The known sex offender, who wore a big moustache, was convicted of Morton's wife's murder. And now ex-prosecutor Anderson has been indicted for warping justice (yet he remains a judge). The Texas legislature passed a law, named for Morton, requiring prosecutors to disclose all exculpatory evidence.
This disturbing case should make everyone think twice before automatically assuming guilt. Remember that America's justice system is based on "innocent until proven guilty."
West Virginia suffered several wrongful convictions during the ugly era when former State Police lab chief Fred Zain fabricated evidence on the witness stand. The state Supreme Court threw out all his testimony, and the state paid millions to freed inmates. Also, Joseph Lavigne Jr., from Putnam County, spent 14 years in a cell on charges of raping his 5-year-old daughter -- then a circuit judge freed him as a victim of wrongful imprisonment, but the state Supreme Court reversed the circuit judge and jailed Lavigne again.
Justice is a thorny tangle. Finding the truth can be extremely difficult. At least, occasional erroneous convictions should make people pause before presuming that all arrested suspects are guilty.