Will LIFE imitate art or tell it like it is?

Will LIFE imitate art or tell it like it is?

by Kirsten D. Levingston

What happens when a cop is wrongly convicted of murder, serves a dozen years in prison, is freed by DNA, and returns to the very department responsible for the miscarriage of justice against him?  We'll find out this Wednesday at 10p. when NBC premieres its new crime drama, LIFE.  

The show's protagonist is LAPD police officer Charlie Crews, convicted of a triple murder he claims he did not commit.  Sentenced to a life term at a maximum security prison Crews loses his job, family, and friends before a DNA test proves his innocence.  

How does LIFE's compelling narrative stack up to the reality of today's justice system?  While art imitates life in some surprising ways, there are some differences that deserve our attention.

Let's start with the basic premise.  The idea of a cop being convicted, let alone wrongfully convicted, may sound too fantastic for fiction.  Think again.  In 1996 Jeffrey Scott Hornoff, a Rhode Island police detective, was convicted of killing his girlfriend and sentenced to life.  The special protective unit in which he was housed included people Hornoff had been responsible for investigating, arresting and incarcerating.  After serving over six years for the crime Hornoff went free when the real killer confessed.  Nationwide 207 people convicted of crimes have been exonerated through DNA evidence according to the Innocence Project, an organization that represents the wrongfully convicted.  The average sentence served by these men and women is 12 years - the time the Crews character spends behind bars.  Of the 207 people exonerated, fifteen served time on death row before gaining their freedom.  Unlike Crews - played by the white British actor, Damian Lewis - about two thirds of those wrongfully convicted have been people of color.

LIFE's fictionalized version of the homecoming goes like this - secure freedom, sue the LAPD and the City of Los Angeles, negotiate a dream settlement - a multimillion dollar check and a return to the police force at the higher rank of detective - and crusade to solve the murders for which you took the rap.  How does this stack up to reality for the 650,000 who leave prison each year, including those who are exonerated?  Not very well.

Anyone thinking about seeking redress for wrongful conviction faces a steep hill.  Legal standards of proof are almost impossible to meet and immunity laws generally protect police and prosecutors against liability for wrongful conduct that sends an innocent person to prison or even the electric chair.  A minority of states have passed laws establishing compensation schemes for those wrongfully convicted.  California, where LIFE is set, is one of twenty-two states with such a statute.  But the Golden State is certainly not shelling out millions.  California law allows a maximum of $100 per day of wrongful incarceration - and you get that only after you've presented proof of actual innocence and can show you did not contribute to your wrongful conviction.  After spending a dozen years behind bars and meeting proof requirements a wrongfully convicted person could receive up to $438,000 in compensation.

The pending case of James Ochoa provides a reality check.  Ochoa filed a claim under California's compensation statute after being exonerated of a carjacking-related conviction.  Though Ochoa insisted he was innocent, he pled guilty to the charge and accepted a 2-year prison sentence.  If he had gone to trial Ochoa faced 25 years to life.  Though five family members were prepared to testify Ochoa was home the night of the crime, an alleged eyewitness was also prepared to swear Ochoa was the bad guy.  Signals from the trial judge suggested he would credit that testimony and sentence harshly upon a conviction.  Ochoa served ten months before DNA testing confirmed what he had claimed all along.  The prosecutor does not dispute Ochoa's innocence but still is not supporting his compensation claim.  Instead, focusing on the statutory requirement that the individual not "contribute to the bringing about of his arrest or conviction . . .," the D.A. contends Ochoa's guilty plea was just such a contribution.  This rather crisp reading of the statute utterly ignores its spirit - the desire to make amends for a horrible injustice.

For most exonerees and others leaving prison post-release job promotion is also highly unlikely.   People with convictions are lucky if they can find a job at all.  Thanks to advances in information technology potential employers have greater access to applicant arrest and conviction records.  Even when someone has been exonerated records of conviction and sentence can remain.  In some places people with convictions are barred from certain jobs and professional or business licenses, even when the position or license bears no relationship to the conviction, is dated, or is counterbalanced by a person's post-conviction good deeds and productivity.

LIFE's freshness could come in its attention to often-ignored justice issues like these - the system's fallibility and its effects on people who go though it and return home.  What could be more dramatic than that?  Will Crews be more sensitive to the causes of wrongful conviction - eyewitness misidentification, unreliable or limited science, false confessions, forensic science fraud or misconduct, government misconduct, untrustworthy informants, and bad lawyering?  Will he speak up when he sees injustice?  And how will his conviction status - though wrongful - affect his social, professional, and personal life?  If the show asks and answers these questions it will give television viewers something refreshing, new - and real - to think about.

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