DNA, Massachusetts, and the Question: Why Exonerate the Innocent?

Why exonerate the innocent? For some of us, the answer is obvious: justice. It's immoral to keep a person behind bars for someone else's crime. But not everyone believes that's enough of a reason. Here's how they think: Is it really worth overwhelming the underfunded criminal justice system (in Massachusetts, the vast majority of assistant district attorneys, the workhorses of the system, make between $40,000 and $80,000 a year, plus death threats) to process DNA requests for the few outliers who think they're innocent? For that side of the fence, here's the motivator: If the wrong person is in jail, there's a rapist or murderer still walking around, endangering the rest of us.

Neither of those reasons has been enough for my home state of Massachusetts, putatively so liberal, to require judges to grant prisoners access to DNA evidence. This weekend Michael Blanding and Lindsay Markel of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, where I am a senior fellow, published a damning article about that failure in the Boston Globe Magazine. One of those lobbying for change is Betty Anne Waters, whose passion to exonerate her brother was dramatized in the movie Conviction. Here's a quote from the article:

Advocates for the bill recognize that it can be painful for victims and their families to see a case reopened years after they thought it was settled. But [former prosecutor David] Meier believes seeing justice done, even belatedly, is what they want. “It’s impossible to describe how raw the emotions of [victims] are, how angry they are,” he says. “But I can tell you one thing – they all say: ‘Get the guy who did this. Get the animal who did this.’ I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘Get the wrong guy.’ ”


Please let me pick on that issue of ADA salaries for a minute (here's the national pay scale, which includes the DAs themselves). Full disclosure: my wife is an assistant district attorney. I was shocked to learn what they get paid--and to realize that they are public interest lawyers, just as much as anyone who works in nonprofits. She regularly watches her best colleagues move on because the pay is just too low for a state with a high cost of living. Here's a quote from one article about the subject:

In Springfield, [ Michelle Cruz] was paid in the $50,000 to $60,000 range to handle between 100 and 150 cases at once in the family protection unit of Hampden Superior Court. Her cases included rape, child abuse and other such crimes. As a prosecutor in Springfield District Court, she juggled up to 400 cases and was paid less.

As a single mother of two with a mortgage and student loan debt, Cruz made the leap across state lines to make almost double that as a victim's rights watchdog.

"There's this misinformation out there that if you're an attorney you make all this money. But if you work for the state, you don't ... particularly if you work in Massachusetts...," said Cruz, of South Hadley. "I thought I would be a career prosecutor. I loved my job, but I drive a Kia and I had to take this job to make ends meet."

I know I have a personal interest in this topic, so dismiss me if you like. But knowing how important it is to get the right person off the streets, I find the pay scale problematic. Really, how can we rely on the criminal justice system if experienced people move on because they can't afford to donate their lives to the state?