Today’s post leads with a brief reference to plea bargains, since one man’s plea played a prominent role in the story described below.
We focused exclusively on negotiated pleas in our April 26 post entry, noting therein a vexing point about that criminal justice commonplace, namely, that it “prevents innocent people from having their case heard in court.”
To wit: Paul Gatling, now 81 years old, was innocent of the murder charge he was facing as a far younger man back in 1963. Notwithstanding that innocence, though, he was so intimidated by the challenges confronting him — including a witness who wrongly placed him near the crime scene, an equally wrong identification by the victim’s spouse and a police interview without benefit of legal counsel — that he accepted a prosecutor’s plea offer.
The result: He was sentenced to a prison term of 30 years to life.
Ultimately, that sentence was commuted by the governor in Gatling’s state, but only after he had already served about a decade behind bars. Moreover, commutation did not erase his conviction or status as a felon.
Those burdens were lifted last week, when, more than half a century after his conviction, a district attorney formally apologized to him and cleared his criminal record.
That attorney heads a unit that has similarly cleared 19 other innocent people of criminal wrongdoing and is reviewing about 100 other cases.
That is simultaneously good and bad news. On the one hand, it is a salutary development for its focus on getting things right. On the other hand, though, it amply confirms what is painfully obvious in the United States, namely, that innocent people are wrongly convicted and do spend lengthy periods of their lives locked away in penal institutions.
A recent media article summarizing Gatling’s case and alluding to others that are similar notes that criminal exonerations are “trending upward nationally” and were reportedly at a “record number” last year.