You are 16 years old and innocent of the alleged crime. Do you plead guilty and serve 2-5 years, or do you risk the next 41 years to a jury that may perceive you as George Zimmerman once perceived Trayvon Martin? What would YOU do?
High school football star Brian Banks chose the latter 10 years ago, and after finally being exonerated this week against his false rape accusation. His story has been making the TV rounds. See here.
Banks — who is currently pursuing his dream to play in the NFL — explains why he took the plea:
“You can go into a courtroom in front of a jury. You are a big black teenager. They are going to automatically assume you as guilty, and you will be facing 41 years to life. What do you want to do?”
Says Banks’ attorney, Justin Brooks from the California Innocence Project:
[The plea bargain is] what this case is really about, and what we really need to talk about. Plea bargains have become the 95% solution. And you take a child and they have to roll the dice about dieing in prison or taking a plea offer. We know that innocent people sometimes plead guilty, and that’s a real problem in our system. …We are really the only country in the world that uses this process to the extent that we do…
We need to take a look at our sentencing policies, and we can’t have them to such a point that you don’t want to risk going to trial even if you are innocent. We also need to give more resources to the defense so that investigations are done prior to plea bargains… What we see on TV with trials happens in only 5% of cases.
Banks is far from alone. His exoneration comes on the heels of a new comprehensive report on over 2000 people who have been exonerated over the last 23 years, including 129 like Banks where no crime actually occurred, and at least 290 that have involved DNA testing.
Writes Nancy A. Heitzeg, a Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity says of the report:
Exonerations in the U.S., 1989-2012 offers the first comprehensive glimpse into a range of exonerations that extend beyond the the high profile cases of homicide and sexual assault. Many of these exonerations occur because of the later analysis DNA at the crime scene, and on occasion (140 since 1973) involve dramatic releases from death row.
The study also shows that African-Americans make up a disproportionate number of exonerees (50%). This figures rises to 60% when examining those freed from DNA testing — a rare resource used more often for more severe crimes. Most concerning is the fact that these cases studied only represent a small fraction of the total cases. The report concludes:
“These cases merely point to a much larger number of tragedies that we do not know about … Why would anyone suppose that the small number of miscarriages of justice that we learn about years later — like the handful of fossils of early hominids that we have discovered — is anything more than an insignificant fraction of the total?”
After Brian Banks had his name cleared, media members across television have appropriately commended his individual positive attitude, perspective, and lack of bitterness. Perhaps the very best way our mainstream media can demonstrate appreciation for Banks’s disposition is to use their platforn to shine election year light on the larger issues of plea bargains, and everything else that is dysfunctional with America’s Prison Industrial Complex that has produced a six-fold increase since 1972.
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