A delay of justice proves to have fatal consequences

This Just In...

April 12, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

THE WAY I measure things, a 50-year prison sentence for a 63-year-old man amounts to capital punishment, so I am going to take the small leap required to attach the name of Henry Myron Roberts to the list of innocent men sent to death row in the United States since 1973. That list has grown to 100, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Roberts would make 101, with one glaring distinction.

Unlike others on America's list of the innocent almost-gone, Roberts did not survive. He collapsed outside his cell in the Maryland House of Correction and died three days before Christmas 1996.

He'd spent nearly the last five years of his life in prison.

Only this week -- five years and five months after his death at 68 -- did we learn Roberts was innocent of having shot and killed his nephew. A man less than half Roberts' age pleaded guilty to the crime, and that happened only after a witness racked with guilt stepped forward to give up the real killer's name.

Turns out, the real killer's name was in a police file within three months of Henry Roberts' imprisonment, about 10 years ago.

But somehow, despite a follow-up investigation by police detectives, the truth that would have exonerated Roberts did not become known until it was too late. ("Sometimes justice is delayed," said the state's attorney, Patricia Jessamy.)

Police made an effort to get at the truth, we're told, but witnesses were uncooperative and the tip didn't pan out, and you know how that goes. You can be allowed to wonder how dogged the detectives were, considering that a conviction already had been secured. Don't forget: This is Baltimore, which had more than 3,000 homicides in the 1990s, so it's not hard to imagine homicide detectives turning their attention to new business soon after Henry Roberts was off the books.

These things happen, don't they?

"Outrageous," a longtime Baltimore defense attorney said after reading The Sun's story on the Roberts case. "Is anyone paying attention? Does anyone care?"

One wonders. Given the rate at which we schedule executions in this country, and the way the courts have streamlined the process, one wonders when Americans will be sufficiently troubled by the whole mess and finally say, "Enough!" My opposition to the death penalty is based on a personal belief that capital punishment is barbaric and should not be condoned by a society that desires to become, or considers itself, civilized. I also believe that it does not serve as a deterrent to violent crime and is unfairly applied from county to county and state to state. That 100 innocent men have actually spent time on death row should give those who are not as strongly opposed to it as I am -- who perhaps want to see capital punishment reserved for certain types of crimes -- another reason to ask for a big timeout.

Of course, Henry Myron Roberts was not sentenced to die. But he got 50 years when he'd lived 63.

"My God," he said six times to his Baltimore Circuit Court trial judge. "Fifty years for something I didn't do? My God. ... Your honor, I have never fired a handgun. Never."

"Sir," the judge said, "I'm convinced the jury got it right."

The judge was one Kenneth Lavon Johnson. It should be noted that, during the time Henry Roberts and other defendants were being brought into Johnson's courtroom for trial, Johnson was under fire himself. In the 15 years since winning a seat on the Baltimore bench in the 1982 city election, Johnson faced a series of complaints of intemperate behavior. Complaints included several bizarre cases in which he held defendants and lawyers in contempt of court. A number of other Johnson rulings had been reversed by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which in several instances noted that the judge had wielded the power of contempt inappropriately. Nonetheless, Johnson was recommended for reappointment in 1997 and he remained on the bench until his retirement a year ago.

But there it is -- a judge who had an at-best uneven record of performance thought the jury had it right in the Henry Roberts case. And he backed up his words with 50 years in jail. (Johnson actually sentenced Roberts to life, but had to reduce the sentence after being reminded by the prosecutor that Roberts' convictions for second-degree murder and use of a handgun carried lighter maximum penalties.)

So many things can go wrong on the righteous path to justice. Detectives are under pressure to close cases and sometimes they have to cobble together evidence of the flimsiest nature; the Roberts case sounds like a perfect example of that. Witnesses can lie or get it wrong. (See State of Maryland vs. Austin, Michael.) Juries convict -- and sometimes get it wrong. Judges make bad or even rash judgments (as do the commissions and politicians who appoint them to the bench).

The standards of proof and procedure should be high and rigorous in all criminal cases, but especially so when a defendant faces death -- by statute, or simply by the closing hands of time.

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