Can we afford injustice?

We’re crediting medieval philosopher Maimonides with the maxim: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.” It was true in the 12th century and it’s true today — it’s the reason why the entire US legal system is predicated on the presumptive innocence of the accused. We are not in the business of putting innocent people in jail. That’s the idea, anyway. But recently we’ve been gradually discovering that, for a time, at least, the Winston-Salem Police Department did not see things that way. The release of Darryl Hunt in 2004 after serving 19 years for a murder and rape he did not commit is, of course, the best-known example. Hunt, convicted in 1984 for the murder and sexual assault of Winston-Salem Journal copy editor Deborah Sykes in a trial bereft of physical evidence, was finally freed from prison in 2004 — 10 years after DNA evidence cleared him of the sexual assault charges. Hunt has turned a misspent youth into a life of service to the wrongfully incarcerated, which was why he was involved last week when Forsyth Superior Court Judge A. Moses Massey vacated the life sentence of Joseph Lamont Abbitt, who was wrongfully accused, tried and convicted of the 1991 rape of two teenaged girls. DNA testing cleared Abbitt and, unlike Hunt, he was back on the street in a matter of days after the test results were confirmed. It is still up in the air whether he will be as merciful towards the city as Hunt was in his own civil lawsuit, which ended in a settlement from the city for about $1.5 million after 19 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. The state ponied up another another $750,000 — the maximum payment allowed in the state constitution. North Carolina values wrongful incarceration at $50,000 a year, so Abbitt is entitled to $650,000 from our beleaguered state coffers and, we figure, at least $1 million from the city of Winston-Salem, which is almost 7 percent of what we just loaned Billy Prim to finish the baseball stadium he proposed while Abbitt was doing his undeserved time. And even now, yet another young African-American male sits behind bars after questionable police tactics led to an assault conviction: Kalvin Michael Smith, who has been in custody since 1996 after his conviction in the assault on Jill Marker. Thirteen years later, he is still counting the days, and the city and state’s financial exposure continues to grow.

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