Flaws Exposed in California County's Courts
MONTAGNE: An investigation into the criminal justice system in one California County found breakdowns at every level, from Prosecutors, to defense lawyers, to Judges. The San Jose Mercury News reviewed more than 700 court cases in Santa Clara County, better known as Silicon Valley. Of those cases, the paper says more than a third were, quote, marred by questionable conduct that worked against the defendant.
Reporter Rick Tulsky spent three years examining these cases, and he joins us to talk about his findings. Your review found flaws at every stage of the criminal justice system. And let's begin, if you will, if a particular example. Talk to us about Bobby Herrera.
Mr. RICK TULSKY (Reporter, San Jose Mercury News): Bobby Herrera is a case that stands out because an innocent man was convinced to plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit by a lawyer who wasn't interested in investigating the case. Bobby was at a party where somebody, who probably was in a gang, fired shots and the gang members falsely accused Bobby. Bobby's mother wanted a real lawyer for her son and she went to somebody she knew, paid him a lot of money, didn't know at the time that he would soon be disbarred because of his bad dealings for other people.
MONTAGNE: So as you write, even though Bobby Herrera was not guilty, felt pressured to be done with it and was told what by his lawyer?
Mr. TULSKY: Bobby Herrera's lawyer told him his family couldn't afford to spend the money to put him on trial. All he had to do was plead guilty and he wouldn't get more than a year in jail. He then entered a guilty plea and it ended up the minimum sentence he could get for the crime was five years in prison.
MONTAGNE: Why was this allowed to happen?
Mr. TULSKY: Well, the system survives in large part by getting plea bargains and there's an incentive from privately paid attorneys for them to get rid of the case quickly and move onto the next one, so they lean on their clients who don't know the system, who may not speak English, to plead guilty. Stepping back, what I think our series shows about the system is, that when you have an aggressive prosecutor who will push aggressively for a conviction in case after case, what you really need are effective checks and balances on that power.
MONTAGNE: When you talk about checks and balances an obvious one would be the judges. Where would the judges?
Mr. TULSKY: Bobby Herrera actually was fortunate. He had one of the judges who is open minded and tries to be fair and in fact, she took steps to let him out of jail once the injustice was discovered. One of the problems for a judge, if the prosecution is pushing and the defense doesn't push back just as hard, it is very hard for the judge to be a referee and keep the case fair. So that's one problem. The other is the clubbiness (sic), the inbredness (sic). Most judges have gotten onto the bench after being prosecutors. In close cases, there may be tendencies to just err in favor of prosecutors.
MONTAGNE: If you had to break it down to how many cases the defendant was actually not guilty, what would that add up to?
Mr. TULSKY: We found a handful of cases where we felt comfortable saying that this person was not guilty. What there is, is a zone of cases where at the end of the case you say, there isn't enough evidence to know whether he's guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It doesn't mean he's innocent, but it means who knows?
MONTAGNE: But what's the solution? You've documented problems in this one California county that are well known, at least anecdotally throughout the criminal justice system.
Mr. TULSKY: The court system is one branch of government. It's up to us, as a society, to demand the best we can from our government officials. What we did was study Santa Clara County in a way nobody's really looked at their county. But many experts at the end of the day said, well, there are some quirks in your system that may exacerbate things, but you could find this kind of problem just about anywhere in any courthouse.
MONTAGNE: Rick Tulsky is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. His investigative series, titled Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice, concludes today.