When false murder charges against a man who spent 13 years in prison are finally dropped, it is hard to know how to feel. There is a measure of joy that the ordeal is over, but also great sadness at the years wasted and the damage inflicted -- and anger that it ever had to happen. A week after Alan Beaman's exoneration on January 29, 2009, anger is uppermost in my mind as I reflect on the case.
First I must disclose that I am not an unbiased observer. I have been representing Alan for six years. (My colleague Jeff Urdangen has logged a dozen years in this fight for justice.) During this time I have pored over all aspects of the case, and I have become very well acquainted with my impressive client Alan and his equally remarkable family. My conclusion from this study is that Alan is absolutely innocent of the 1993 murder of his ex-girlfriend in Normal, Illinois, for the simple reason that he was 140 miles away in his Rockford home when it happened.
One of our mantras at the Center on Wrongful Convictions is that we cannot correct all miscarriages of justice one by one, so we must use individual cases to shed light on flaws in the criminal justice system that lead to erroneous convictions. Each exoneration presents a "teachable moment." What lessons can we learn from the Alan Beaman case? Why is it that despite no evidence of guilt other than supposition and innuendo, and indeed clear evidence of his innocence, Alan was indicted and convicted? Why did his conviction stand for 13 years until the Illinois Supreme Court ordered a new trial in May 2008, labeling the case aginst Alan "tenuous" and wholly circumstantial?
In a word, the answer is "Prosecutor." The prosecutor holds a uniquely powerful position in the criminal justice process that rivals even that of the judge. Alan Beaman's prosecutor, James Souk, involved himself early in the homicide investigation and eventually took it over. When information surfaced during the investigation that supported Alan's alibi, the police were directed to try to refute it rather than shift their focus to more likely suspects. (This phenomenon of tailoring an investigation around a premature conclusion is called "tunnel vision.") Faced with a high profile murder of a college student in a college town, they indicted Alan rather than leave the crime unsolved. At trial, the prosecutor hid evidence that supported Alan's innocence and misled the jury about the strength of the State's case. Thus, the jury that decided Alan's guilt or innocence did not have access to all of the relevant evidence, including information about other potential suspects. That angers me.
What is the appropriate response to a case like this? We need to pay attention to the people in whom we invest the awesome powers of the prosecutor. Candidates for prosecutor should be well screened, and when elected prosecutors (or their staff) abuse their power, they should be voted out of office. Similarly, when a court of review finds that a prosecutor has committed an ethical or constitutional violation, there should be consequences and sanctions. Finally, the public must express its outrage when prosecutors cross the line. In the case of Alan Beaman, it may be that public support for his cause contributed to the dismissal of the wrongful charges against him.
To read more about Alan's case, try these links:
(Photo by Steve Smedley/The Pantagraph)