Sunday, October 28, 2007

Conviction Overturned, But Guilt Unaddressed?

The New York Times reports that the US military is in the midst of rectifying what appears to be a gross injustice against black soldiers that occurred 63 years ago. The 28 black solders were among 43 charged with starting a riot that led to deaths of an Italian POW at a base in Seattle. They were convicted despite laughable defense inadequacies and possible prosecutorial misconduct.

All 43 defendants were represented by only two lawyers, who had only 13 days to prepare for trial. There is evidence that the lead prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who would become famous 30 years later as the Watergate prosecutor, was aware of exculpatory evidence he did not share with the defense. The charges against two were dropped, and the other 13 were acquitted.

So far only one of the 28 convictions has been overturned. Samuel Snow, 83, who served a year in jail, will now receive back pay and an honorable discharge. But Snow, whose pictures as a young soldier and as he is today accompany the article, is only one of two defendants who hasn't died.

The article is strong, thorough and dramatic. If author William Yardley's goal is to evoke a sense that a terrible, racially-motivated injustice is being unwound in time for at least one man who "(w)alked with it all all his life" to savor some vindication, then he succeeds.

But in an otherwise excellent article, properly fronted on Oct. 27, 2007, this passage struck me as something of a slur:
"The ruling does not say the convicted soldiers were not guilty, but that the process by which they were convicted was unjust."
Well, exactly. So what?

Appeal or review panels are not finders of fact but only arbiters of process. Unless these 28 soldiers are tried again -- probably impossible and surely undesirable -- or if they receive executive clemency of some kind, this something-short-of-exoneration-status could be said of every person whose criminal conviction has been overturned.

Yet we don't generally make that trivially accurate but irrelevant distinction. Why in this story of an apparently massive injustice against 28 black soldiers that is being rectified 60 long years later is it necessary to inject unreasonable doubt?

I've written a slightly different version of this post to the New York Times Public Editor. If the matter is taken up for any reason by the ombudsman, I'll follow up.

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