The Philly Conviction Mill

From Twitter to Rolling Stone, the entertainment gossip lines lit up this week when authorities announced that rapper Meek Mill was slated to be released from prison. The Philadelphia area rapper was serving a prison sentence related to a long list of criminal allegations and weapons charges stemming from a 2008 arrest. Mill, whose given name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, was serving up to four years in a state prison and is appealing his conviction by guilty plea.

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the decisions of a lower appellate court and the Philadelphia courts to grant Mill bond while on appeal. Exercising rare authority pursuant to Pennsylvania’s “King’s Bench Rules,” the Supreme Court cited extraordinary circumstances for intervening in Mill’s bail request. In its per curiam order, dated April 24, 2018, the Court wrote that, “There are credibility issues with a police officer who was a ‘critical witness’ at Petitioner’s trial.”

The arresting officer, one of many in a group of rogue cops in Philadelphia, is alleged to have given false statements to obtain Mill’s arrest — and likely tainted the convictions of hundreds of others. In a system geared to convict and imprison mass numbers, police lies are simply another tool used by authorities to guarantee that America’s prisons remain at capacity. The U.S. criminal justice system is less concerned with justice, and more concerned about producing quantifiable numbers to demonstrate and justify to the public and media that crime remains the predominant threat to the nation.

Without crime, most government budgets, 1033 militarization programs, and many political careers would be in deep trouble. The omnipresent threat of crime drives not only a system that derives over 95% of convictions from leveraged guilty pleas, but also a wide-ranging industry predicated on preventing crime and keeping the public safe.

Fortunately, for Meek Mill, his celebrity in Philadelphia and the music business generated long-overdue attention on the city’s police practices. It also shines attention on a continued argument for technological intervention beyond mere body cams. Hundreds of other men and women have been languishing in Pennsylvania prisons for years, complaining about the very same practices and corruption that may ultimately reverse Mill’s own conviction.

Not only police officers feed the meat-grinders that are the criminal courts. Other ‘state actors’ and government officials may often tailor testimony, statements, and other evidence to garner convictions — and it’s all permissible. As far back as 1969, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the legality of deceptive interrogation tactics. Since then, a series of state and federal court decisions have granted authorities wide latitude in how they fashion testimony and evidence against the accused.

Misconduct — by either police or prosecutors — is a frequently argued claim on appeals, but it is the least likely avenue to relief. Courts dismiss claims of prosecutorial misconduct because of prejudicial relationships and the presumption of authoritative righteousness. None-the-less, in a system of wins and losses versus truth and justice, authorities often do anything to earn a check mark in the W-column.

The ethical and public relations crises facing law enforcement and the criminal courts present a renewed argument for not only mandatory use of body cams, but also expanded use of technology to ensure honesty and integrity.

Only a handful of states mandate the contemporaneous verbatim recording of police interrogations — and then, only for certain crimes. In the modern era, there is simply no reason why witness statements cannot be recorded with both video and audio; and more importantly, no rational or legal reason why any police (or state actor) questioning and resulting confessions cannot be preserved in the moment.

The time has arrived for police and criminal prosecutors to be held to advanced ethical standards and for states to employ technology to reduce the number of false, erroneous, and leveraged convictions in America.

In Mill’s case, a single arresting officer was responsible for writing a report, creating a hostile case against Mill, and possibly fabricating evidence and statements. His experience with Philadelphia police is neither a new phenomenon, nor one that is limited to the city. Pennsylvania convicts have been filing appeals based on corruption claims for the past decade — especially those arrested in Philadelphia — to no avail.

When state actors, like CYS agents or state officials, fabricate so-called confessions that have no written statements, no signatures, and no audio or video records; and manipulate evidence, they must be held accountable. Those subject to such practices, like Meek Mill, end up in Pennsylvania prisons, but lack the necessary celebrity to convince the courts that their convictions are the fruit of over-zealous agents intent on a conviction above all else.

There are thousands of similar stories across the nation, of citizens who have no experience with police and prosecutors, and whose naiveté leaves them at the mercy of “throw the book at ‘em justice.” The time has arrived for the United States Supreme Court and lawmakers to remove the exceptions, rules, and procedural practices that tilt justice in favor of the state by giving authorities wide-ranging permissions to bend rules and act with impunity to ethics in the name of greater good.

From kindergarten, most people learn the old adage that, “two wrongs do not make a right.” The same should hold true in our criminal justice theaters: bad police work and bad prosecutorial practices should not be the route to a good conviction.

Meek the rapper may be free on bail today, but the prison mill is still grinding another thousand cases a week in Philadelphia and other jurisdictions across America. Justice, and the public, deserve better than leveraged convictions and over-populated prisons. If America wants to be a better place, maybe the time has arrived for us to begin paying police salaries for good investigative work instead of throwing money away like public bribes for false convictions.

Featured Image: David Swanson/AP/The Philadelphia Inquirer

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