Law and Order and Mistakes

The justice system in the United States is considered to be a symbol of strength, accuracy and fairness. It is a place where people believe that it is better to let 100 guilty men go free than incarcerate 1 innocent man. That image has taken a hit in recent days, as two lawsuits against local governments returned multimillion dollar verdicts in favor of formerly incarcerated men.

Stephen Slevin had been driving a friend’s car through New Mexico when he was arrested for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) in August of 2005. He was put in jail and thrown into solitary confinement for the entire two years. Slevin claims he never saw a judge or even a magistrate the entire time he was confined. Not seeing a judge may be the least of his problems, though, since lack of a dentist led him to remove a tooth himself, and not seeing a doctor for depression contributed largely to the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that he received not long after his release.

Slevin was denied access to medical care, the hour per day that is usually granted to prisoners who are in solitary confinement, even denied the basic maintenance privilege of a shower. Fungus grew under Slevin’s skin, his toenails grew and curled around his feet, and still none of the Dona Ana County Jail staff responded to his requests for medical care.

Dona Ana County will not treat anyone like this for a long time- the jury awarded Slevin $22 million in damages for the inhumane treatment he suffered.

A former inmate in Chicago had an experience that is also sickening, but sickening to the conscience and not the body. After spending 16 years in prison on a murder conviction, Thaddeus Jimenez was released in 2009 when a witness came out to say he gave false testimony, and new evidence of another person confessing to a friend came forwards.

In what may be the largest award granted in a Wrongful Conviction case, Jimenez has been awarded $25 million by a federal jury.  Jimenez’ lawyer, Jon Loevy, points out that this verdict is about correcting the errors made by the criminal justice system, particularly by a police department that he feels framed his client. Loevy is not interested in criticizing the prosecutors, who he says “recognized there had been an injustice and they corrected it.”

In both situations, the justice system has failed citizens, all of whom are deserving of the protections granted under the Constitution and Bill of Rights. While there will be many who begin to complain about the unfairness of the system, the fact that people are this outraged- as evidenced by both jury awards being over $20 million- shows that the system works most of the time, and everyone should be focused on making the system work every time.

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