The New York Times and Pro Publica just published a two-part series on one of our cases, The State vs. Joe Bryan. The title is “Blood Will Tell,” which highlights the significance of the "expert" testimony used to obtain the conviction. This story is about far more than problems with blood spatter testimony though. I believe it also points out several other issues with the criminal justice system. I am going to address one of those today, and the others in subsequent posts.
The assumptions most people have about wrongful conviction cases are wrong
Most people have assumptions about the cases that end up with wrongful convictions. They assume the defendant is poor and has been in trouble before. They also assume they were represented by a public defender or a lawyer who was not competent or qualified to handle a serious criminal case. They may also assume there was some type of misconduct involved on the part of the State.
There’s a reason why people make those assumptions. Some - or all - of those factors have been present in several of more high profile cases that people are familiar with. The problem with those assumptions is that they encourage people to believe this is something that happens to "other" people or their families.
Even middle-class white guys can be wrongfully convicted
This is why I believe one of the more important lessons we can take away from this case is that it can happen to anyone, including you or your family. Joe Bryan was in many ways atypical - he was not an average person. Instead, he was someone who occupied an important place in his community. People looked up to him. He was well educated, and had never been involved in anything that even hinted of impropriety. If you were going to pin something on someone, he’s not the person you would pick. He had a certain amount of influence, and most people had difficulty accepting he could have done what he was accused of.
Because of his position, he also had the means to hire the best lawyers available. While everyone assumes the lawyer did a bad job when you lose, that was not the case here. The lawyers he hired had the reputation of being the best criminal defense lawyers in the area - and the State. And they fought for him. You don’t have to get very deep into the official transcript to see how contentious the proceedings were. His lawyers believed in his innocence, and went to the mat for him.
In other words, he had everything going for him. If the system works, it should have worked for him. So, lesson number one is that no one is beyond the risk of being charged - and convicted - of a crime they didn’t commit.