For New Englanders concerned with criminal justice issues, it seems all too easy to take potshots at our neighbors to the south: to criticize the widespread and apparently reckless application of the death penalty in Texas, the poor quality of indigent defense in Mississippi, the decrepit state of the prison system in Louisiana. Indeed, the term “Southern justice,” when bandied about in the Northeast, carries with it a strong sense of moral condemnation about practices in the South. The use of this term implies that somehow, someway we do it better “up North.”
But when one looks carefully at criminal justice in New England, it is not entirely clear that we do it better. Consider a few recent events from Massachusetts. Earlier this year the Legislature passed a bill providing for post-conviction access to DNA testing for criminal defendants with biological evidence in their cases. A commendable development, to be sure, but the Bay State was a late arrival to this particular party, representing the 49th state in the nation to enact such a statute. Only Oklahoma remains without a post-conviction DNA testing law.
In addition, Massachusetts is embroiled in a crime lab scandal of epic proportions. It appears as if a rogue chemist at the state facility in Jamaica Plain tampered with evidence in criminal cases over many years, even going so far as to alter the weight of drugs and to change the composition of samples so they would test as illegal narcotics when they otherwise would not. This behavior may have tainted evidence obtained in more than 30,000 criminal cases and will require an exhaustive investigation into every conviction. This task will prove cumbersome to the participants — and costly to taxpayers.
In addition, according to data compiled by the Innocence Project in New York City, nine wrongful convictions have been overturned in Massachusetts through DNA evidence in the past 20 years. While this figure may not be shocking in and of itself, it exceeds the number of DNA exonerations generated in the states with population sizes ranked immediately above (Washington with three exonerations) and below (Indiana with five) that of Massachusetts based on recent census data.
Now, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we get it right quite often. After all, Massachusetts did ultimately pass a DNA statute; the state is actively investigating the Jamaica Plain crime lab scandal and pondering how to proceed with the affected cases; and those nine exonerees in Massachusetts all received compensation for their suffering (which is not necessarily the case elsewhere). Yet the portrait of “Northern justic:e is neither as rosy as we think nor as different from the state of affairs down south as we would like to believe. Forget about regional stereotypes. What matters is that the criminal justice system across the nation has its flaws. We should work together to make it as fair, as accurate and just as possible.
Daniel S. Medwed, a member of the faculty of Northeastern University School of Law, is author of “Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent.”