Oops! My Mistake!

The following brief Yahoo News  story is worthy of extended comment, it seems to me:

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City man whose murder conviction was overturned after 23 years in prison has suffered a heart attack on his second day of freedom.

David Ranta’s lawyer tells The New York Times (http://nyti.ms/102uUVo ) the former inmate had a serious heart attack Friday night and is being treated at a New York hospital.

Ranta walked out of jail Thursday after a judge threw out his conviction in the 1990 killing of a Brooklyn rabbi.

Brooklyn prosecutors had recently concluded Ranta’s prosecution in the death of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger was fatally flawed.

Werzberger was killed by a bandit fleeing a botched robbery. One witness said a police lineup that helped convict Ranta had been rigged.

Ranta is 58. He told reporters Thursday that his new freedom was emotionally overwhelming.

It is terribly sad that Ranta had a serious heart attack after his release from prison. But, of course, he never should have been there in the first place. The possibility of human error in murder trials seems to me to make the case against capital punishment. If this man had faced execution for committing the murder he was accused of, his story never would have been told. But the fact that people do make mistakes and that such certainties as “witness” accounts in cases where emotions run high and people are confused cannot be said to be all that certain renders every “guilty” verdict questionable. The only plausible arguments in favor of capital punishment are the costs of long-term incarceration and, of course, the revenge factor. But these arguments simply do not hold up to scrutiny in the face of events like the mistake that was made in the case of David Ranta.

I have a friend who many years ago was working as a bank teller when the bank was held up. She told me about one of the other tellers who had to deal with the thief directly, actually handing him the money at gun point. The woman swore she would never forget the man’s face. Sure enough, a few weeks later she was called in to identify a man the police thought might have held up the bank. He was in a line-up and with little delay the woman identified the man she was certain had held up the bank. Only she didn’t: the man she identified was a policeman who was just filling out the lineup. It was not the bank robber whose face “she would never forget.” People do forget. Our memories play tricks on us, especially when we are under stress. And we know that racial bias often enters into judgments of this sort as well. This has always seemed to me to be an unassailable argument against capital punishment. If humans were infallible there might be strong reasons to take another life, but as long as we are subject to mistakes the case seems to me to fall apart. Just ask David Ranta’s family.

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7 thoughts on “Oops! My Mistake!

  1. I think cases of mistaken identity are a black mark on our incarceration history. I think the much larger stain on our history is prosecutorial abuses. Just ask former Prosecutor Harry Connick of New Orleans, and the almost 150 cases of people who he’s put in jail under dubious convictions or outright misconduct. We measure them on their success rates, not on their actually catching the “bad guy.” To me, thats an even worse travesty of justice, when they know the defendent is innocent, but are willing to send them to jail or worse anyway.

  2. Good post. Here in NC, the forensic lab was over worked and mishandled evidence. So, there have been a number of convictions overturned. I think in MA, there was case where the guy’s DNA was in evidence on a shelf and was about to get tossed and, when tested, showed his innocence 25 years later. This is the reason not to have the death penalty, unless we are 100% certain, which may be a pipe dream. BTG

  3. I have long been of the mind that the “rules of evidence” would actually exclude the eye witness testimony, since no eye witness is genuinely providing evidence, but mere opinion. When my fingerprints are found on the weapon which has been proven by ballistic methods to be the murder weapon, this constitutes evidence. When the lady who lives across the street testifies in court she saw me point the gun and fire it at the person who was murdered, this constitutes something less than the evidence of the first example I provided. The woman’s testimony might be meaningful, it might not. It should never be the sole evidence for a murder conviction.

  4. how tragic that he lost the prime of his life. it would surely be hard to get past the anger and resentment of being unfairly charged and punished. i hope that his health has improved and he can pick up the pieces and move forward.
    z

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