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The power we lend to police, prosecutors, judges, and politicians often corrupts them into becoming bullies (or nannies) whose allegiance is to winning (or controlling behavior) on behalf of the bureaucracy rather than doing right by the people they’re supposed to serve.
My first hands-on experience with that came somewhat belatedly in life, so I suppose I have a reformed smoker’s zeal for the subject. In early 2008, I began investigating what appeared to be a straightforward story about racism, which for some reason is a topic of unusual interest to me. A young man recruited from Ghana to play soccer for the University of California at Santa Barbara had just been sentenced to a six-year prison term after his unjust conviction for raping a freshman girl. Racism, however, accounted only for the arrest, not the conviction. The lead detective hadn’t looked anywhere he didn’t want to find something he didn’t want to see, but the prosecutor took to trial a case that should have been dropped after the dramatic discovery of some exculpatory information. So when the ill-prepared defense attorney did nothing—almost literally—in court, the jury voted the only way they could.
Before writing a story, I spent a few thousand hours uncovering evidence of actual innocence that I handed to an appellate attorney who aggregated my findings with those of two others (including a retired FBI profiler on whom the CBS series Criminal Minds is based). The result was a 700-page petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed in early 2011. Nine months later, the presiding judge of the court denied it on spurious grounds. His 40-page ruling nitpicked small details, misstated facts, and ignored the petition’s most compelling arguments. It was not accidental to either his taking the petition for himself or his verdict that he had been the trial judge. No one I’ve talked to in the judicial system, including a justice from the California Court of Appeal, had heard of a trial judge ruling on the habeas petition of an appellant convicted in his own court. There was no recourse other than to re-file in a higher court, which we’ve done.
Every cynical conclusion I reached during that first visit inside the criminal-justice sausage factory was soon underlined by research I did for L.A. ’56, my true-crime book that, only somewhat coincidentally, concerns a rape spree in 1956 Los Angeles and the false accusation responsible for destroying a man’s life.
Since completing L.A. ‘56 I’ve been chasing a story about malfeasance and corruption in the federal government. Rather than prosecuting a young man on arson charges, which there was ample proof of, the feds chose to shift blame for the fire in a national forest by suing a successful family company on the grounds of negligence. Following the lead of a corrupt investigator, a United States Attorney decided that collecting a giant bounty on behalf of the treasury was preferable to prosecuting a penniless defendant whom taxpayers might have to house for 20 years. That the case continued with fervor, even as it became clear that the only persuasive evidence was of a government cover-up, confirms the stupefying effect a bureaucracy has on conscience.