Judicial systems cannot continually reply on witness evidence as the basis for convictions without supporting evidence. That was made clear once again in the case of Craig Coley.
It has been reported that Mr. Coley was released in 2017 after serving nearly 40 years in prison. He had been convicted of killing his girlfriend and her son in 1978 in Simi Valley California. Reports indicated “Coley had an alibi for the time of the slayings, and investigators later disproved testimony from an eyewitness who placed him at the scene” (Associated Press).
“Later”? What does that word “later” mean? Coley was in jail for almost 40 years before investigators disproved the eyewitness testimony. How was the eyewitness testimony disproved and why did it take 40 years to disprove it? Surely it did not require the DNA evidence to finally resolve the matter because that appeared to be a separate issue. If Coley had an alibi why was that alibi not accepted? Was it because the court believed the eyewitness?
If it was the first time that witness evidence was in error then the judicial system could be excused. But that is not the case. History is filled with judgments where innocent persons were convicted solely on the basis that a witness appeared to be credible. But no one is willing to review the Coley file to explain where and why the system went wrong.
The Associated Press article on this case indicated that Mr. Coley will receive a $21-million payment for his imprisonment. The City Manager was quoted as saying “While no amount of money can make up for what happened to Mr. Coley, settling this case is the right thing to do…”. Settling this case without further inquiry is not the right thing to do. It only releases those from blame whose actions ought to be reviewed. No further inquiry means that the judicial process can continue without further scrutiny and without correction. It means that many other jurisdictions in North America will not asked to reflect on their policies and procedures to insure that injustices like these are not repeated.
Are there similar problems in the Province of Ontario and Canada? Just ask Mr. James Lockyer, a prominent lawyer who has handled many cases of misapplied justice resulting in innocent persons spending decades in prison before they were exonerated. Steven Truscotte, Guy Paul Morin? There is a list of many who have paid dearly, yet the failures of the justice system remain silent. As in the Coley matter, pay-offs only mean that those who fail to conduct themselves properly escape notice and are free to continue to destroy innocent lives.
It was high time, decades ago, that the issue of acceptance of witness evidence be examined and corrections made to how that evidence will be dealt with. Many prominent researchers have explained how witness information can be in error, or even deliberately untrue. Yet there is little that has been done in the justice system to focus on the problem. Whenever witness information stands alone, without collaborative evidence, there is a substantial likelihood that it could be wrong. Those who claim that a witness appears to credible and proceed with a charge or conviction, based on that opinion alone, are the ones whose actions need to be addressed.