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The Journal Gazette

Friday, June 07, 2019 1:00 am

State takes steps toward righting legal system wrongs

David R. Hoffman

David R. Hoffman is a Mishawaka resident.

Years ago, I entered the practice of law in Indiana with quixotic dreams of becoming the new Perry Mason. For younger readers unfamiliar with the name, Mason was a fictional attorney who had a talent for defending the innocent and getting the guilty to confess.

In his world, the legal system was about truth and justice, and was far removed from the politics, racism, mendacity and injustices I ultimately encountered.

My final disillusionment came with the case of Richard Alexander of South Bend. Alexander, an African American man, had been convicted of several crimes against women, and my doubts about his guilt immediately surfaced.

Several of the elements that often lead to wrongful convictions were in place: There was enormous pressure on the police to solve these crimes; physical evidence did not match Alexander, so eye (and ear) witness testimony was primarily used; the crimes continued while Alexander was in jail awaiting trial; and, after a mixed-race jury failed to convict him in his first trial, an all-white jury convicted him in his second.

I was never directly involved in the Alexander case. I also never had any substance to go with my suspicions until I got to meet and listen to two individuals who were also wrongfully convicted: Rubin Carter, a former boxer and subject of the Denzel Washington movie “Hurricane”; and Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American death row inmate exonerated through DNA testing.

From them, and other speakers at these events, I learned two important things about eyewitness testimony; the first is the issue of “weapons fixation.” When an attacker brandishes a weapon, an intended victim's eyes tend to focus on it, instead of on an attacker's face. The perpetrators of the crimes Alexander was convicted of had used a weapon.

The second is the issue of “cross-racial identification.” This is often condemned because it appears to utilize the stereotype that people of certain races “all look alike.” But it doesn't mean that at all. What this theory contends is that when people, of any race, have little or no significant interactions with people of other races, their perceptions and descriptions tend to be more generalized and less detailed. In the Alexander case, the victims were predominantly white, and the crimes occurred in a predominantly white neighborhood.

In May of 2001, armed with this information, I wrote an article for the South Bend Tribune, arguing that Alexander was innocent. In December of that same year, he was found to be innocent and released.

Unfortunately, there was not a happy ending. Alexander subsequently sued in federal court, seeking compensation for the more than five years he had been wrongfully imprisoned. His case was thrown out on the grounds he could not prove he had been prosecuted in “bad faith” – a ludicrous legal standard that basically demands that targets of an investigation and/or prosecution somehow read the minds of the very people targeting them.

It was then I realized that I could not, in good conscience, continue to believe in or serve a system so corrupt and immoral that it could take years, sometimes decades, from an innocent person's life and not have to pay a penny in compensation.

Having traveled throughout the United States, I have come to learn that Indiana has the reputation of being a racist, homophobic, politically backward state. Unfortunately, far too often, its lawmakers do more to justify this reputation than refute it.

But, in all fairness, one must give credit where credit is due.

Recently, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a law designed to compensate people wrongfully convicted, making Indiana the 34th state to do so.

Of course, like many laws, this one is far from perfect. In exchange for this compensation, victims of wrongful convictions must not pursue lawsuits against those allegedly responsible for the conviction, which means that the number of wrongful convictions achieved through malfeasance, rather than mistake, might be obscured. Without court oversight, this could, in turn, lead to even more such convictions.

Nevertheless, this law is a step in the right direction.