Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio Summit on Wrongful Convictions
Oct. 26, 2018

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, at the Linsalata Alumni House at Case Western Reserve University.)

Thank you, Dean (Verna) Williams, and good afternoon, everyone.

Thanks, also, to your University of Cincinnati School of Law, and the Ohio Innocence Project.

Thanks to our hosts, the Case Law School and Deans (Michael) Scharf and (Jessica) Berg ... and to Prosecutor O’Malley ... the Ohio Transformation Fund ... the George Gund Foundation, Jim and Nancy Petro ... and the cy pres award given recently to OIP through Dworken & Bernstein.

I would also like to recognize Pierce Reed, who served me well for 12 years as a judicial attorney in my chambers. Pierce’s insights were invaluable to me in the research and drafting of opinions. The Ohio Innocence Project will benefit greatly from his involvement.

This is the first event of its kind in Ohio, and I sincerely hope that it’s the first of many …..here and around the country.

The Ohio Innocence Project has freed 27 exonerees in its 15 years, and I commend all the hard work that went into each of those efforts.

That’s a mighty victory, absolutely. But that statistic also is evidence of a system that isn’t delivering equal justice and fairness.

Honest discussions about convictions and the roles of law enforcement, prosecutors, defense counsel, and the judiciary have never been more necessary than they are today.

We need honest dialogue about this issue ... on a continuous basis. Vetting the claims of the convicted, bringing forth the wrongful cases, talking, and working and sharing ideas to improve ... this is how we plant the seeds of progress.

The purpose of an address by an opening speaker is to set the stage for a conference as it unfolds.

But considering the goals of this conference – to educate, share ideas and promote positive change – I think Ricky Jackson set the stage a few minutes ago.

Mister Jackson, your story is one of incredible and absolute fortitude ... and of hope. It’s inspiring, for the way you persevered through the wrongs inflicted by our justice system.

Your courage to turn down a deal to shorten your sentence in return for admitting to a falsehood – I is remarkable. It becomes even more significant when you think about how other Americans would react when faced with such a cruel choice.

Your journey is one of valor, forgiveness, and deserving of the utmost respect. You have mine.

Most of all, your story deserves to be told and re-told.

Over these next two days all of you will talk about advancing legal processes, and related themes of human nature, science, government resources and political obstacles.

That is the core of this mission. But the battle to prevent and correct wrongful convictions is driven by a stark and tragic reminder of the human element ... the stories like yours, Mister Jackson.

These stories ensure that the public and those in power recognize that the need for real progress is itself real and that all of us have work to do.

Anyone in power who fails to listen to ... or try to learn from ... these stories is turning his or her back on truth and progress.

We hold out our justice system as the greatest in the world.

And it is the greatest. But analyzing its greatness must lead to the study of our shortcomings when we measure the ideals of the foundations of the justice system against the realities of the day-to-day administration of justice.

Our founders took stock of a British legal system. It represented an advancement in many ways ... in its day.

But the administration of British law, as we know, was quite often abused to the detriment of various groups and populations.

Our founders built a stronger, better, overhauled system atop the British model. It represented a great advancement.

It can be ... but it has been abused as well. The core principles of fairness and equality contained in those foundations can be ignored, but they cannot be erased. The foundations of our system of law are the foundations for us to act upon.

I have been involved in many endeavors in the past several years that have proved to me that progress can be made against seemingly intractable problems.

One is a project that involves other human stories about injustice – how to best address the impact of court fines, fees and bail on the poor and disadvantaged.

I’m co-chair of the National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices. By working with state courts – across state lines – we have been able to develop policies and principles that are solid reference points for state and local courts ... to take a cold, hard look at their systems.

Then, the work of our task force can be used to help them change their processes, set up pilot programs, use new bench cards that help educate and remind judges of proper bail determinations, and work with local governments and legislatures to appropriately fund the courts rather than make them ATMs that must wrestle costs and fees from the poor who can’t afford them.

Although the public is often focused on the cases heard in federal courts, state and local courts – where most of you do the majority of your work - represent the center of our legal system.

Perhaps I don’t have to tell this group, but I use this statistic all the time, so I’ll say it here: 96 percent of the caseloads in this country are in state courts. Only 4 percent are in federal courts and, of those, more than half are bankruptcy-related.

So, progress in state and local courts is real progress, indeed.

Changes are happening and they benefit all of us because all of us – whether judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, or members of the community – have an interest in ensuring that our courts are fair and just, and that those who deserve to be convicted are and those who do not deserve to be convicted are not.

Just as our work in bail reform has been guided by constitutional commands, including Bearden v. Georgia, you have constitutional guideposts. Brady v. Maryland is a North Star for you.

Brady stands for the notion of fairness and recognized that justice requires fairness.

I have been a defense attorney and a prosecutor ... a magistrate and a common pleas judge ... and for the last 15 years an appellate judge.

Never, in any of these roles, did I see the role of fairness as detrimental to the true goals of justice.

Fairness and justice are not lofty aspirational ideals. They are the principles that must guide every prosecutor as well as every criminal defense attorney. The ultimate interests of both sides should be the same: the vigorous but fair prosecution and defense of the accused – and those interests lead to a goal that we all share ... to achieve justice.

Prosecuting and imprisoning the innocent destroys the fundamental dignity of a human being. We know that all too well from people like Mister Jackson and 25 other Ohioans that have been freed from wrongful convictions. And while they suffer, so too do their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers – I and all too often, their children.

We have a criminal justice system so that those who cause harm to society can be punished, rehabilitated, and deterred from future criminal acts. Unfortunately, there are many people amongst us who must be removed from society because they inflict violence, cause suffering, and wreak havoc in communities.  We need and rely on our prosecuting attorneys to ensure that those who commit criminal wrongs are stopped. I know first-hand how difficult the work of prosecutors is – the pain and suffering that they witness every day.

But we must recognize that none of the goals of our criminal justice system are met when an innocent person goes to prison.

And equally important, we must recognize that when an innocent person goes to prison for a crime that she or he did not commit, the person who did commit the crime remains free, and often continues to inflict harm on others and our communities. When this occurs, no one, including the original victim of the crime, sees justice.

We must remember that the original victim of the crime is victimized again when a wrongful conviction occurs.

And the wrongfully convicted person becomes another victim who also deserves to see justice done.

And all of us – whether judge or juror, police officer, prosecutor or defense attorney – become victims because the public’s trust in us and our work fades.

During the course of this conference, you will learn more wrongful conviction and its causes. You likely already know that, although some wrongful convictions are driven by intentional misconduct and gross incompetence, the vast majority of wrongful convictions occur because of a simple fact: we are human and we make mistakes, even when we have tried our best not to do so.

And equally important, you will learn from one another about the ways that prosecutors, defense counsel, and the communities they serve can work together, collaboratively, to prevent wrongful convictions. Conviction Integrity Units are one mechanism to do so. I want to commend the many prosecutors who will serve as panelists here who have expertise in these units, including Russell Tye, who serves as the chief of the only CIU currently operating in any of Ohio’s 88 prosecuting attorneys’ offices.

Although Cuyahoga County is the first, it has already shown the faithfulness to the prosecuting attorneys promise of a thorough, thoughtful review of innocence claims. Earlier this year, the Cuyahoga County CIU and OIP worked together to see justice done in two cases – those of Ru-El Sailor and Chris Miller.  Each organization had a shared goal: to get to the truth and to get justice. They reached that goal after long investigations and hours and hours of hard work that I have no doubt caused much stress on counsel and client alike. But the results reached were worth it – for Mr. Sailor and Mr. Smith, for their families, and for all of us.

I realize that many prosecutors feel that these units are looking over their shoulders and making a difficult job more so.

But I applaud the prosecutors who have embraced the concept and are working to do what is right on a case by case basis.

These units are invaluable to the process of evaluating the evidence presented at trial, as well as new information that may not have been available at that time. Debates about evolving scientific standards that might cast doubt on the science used at trial are difficult ones for appellate courts, but CIUs can thoroughly and fairly vet those claims.

CIUs are not the only tool available to communities, but they are an important one. You will hear many examples today and tomorrow that I hope will cause you to think, and to remember that every step toward justice is an important step, and why all of us – prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges – serve the public good.

I commend you for taking the time to learn and to take that next step toward justice.

The likeness of William Howard Taft graces the main hall of our Supreme Court building here in Ohio.

Taft, the only person to serve as president and chief justice of the United States, said this more than a century ago. Quote: “The administration of the criminal law in all the states of the Union, there may be one or two exceptions, is a disgrace to our civilization.” End quote.

Five decades later, Justice Felix Frankfurter cited this quote in a dissent* and wrote that while the situation had improved, there remained “serious defects” in the U.S. criminal justice system.  [*Leland v. Oregon, 1952.]

Much time has passed since Taft and Frankfurter uttered those words, but they have been echoed by the United States Supreme Court in cases like Brady and Bearden.

Defects remain today, and it is easy to focus only on those problems.  But we must also recognize that progress is being made. Your attendance here is but one example of that progress around the country – in places as different as California and Pennsylvania, and Illinois and North Carolina, and New York and Texas, and right here in Cleveland.

Your dedication to fairness and justice, and the knowledge you gain here, are invaluable. Take them home with you to your courts and communities, and continue the good fight – the fight to protect the people and promote a fair, just, and strong democracy.

Thank you.

And God Bless.