Free at last after 35 years in prison, any of us could have been James Bain
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on December 18th, 2009
After spending 35 years in prison for a crime he always insisted he hadn’t committed, James Bain walked out of the courthouse in Polk County, Fla., yesterday, a free man once again, according to an Associated Press story in today’s New York Times.
It took many legal attempts to finally get the courts to analyze his DNA and compare it to DNA left at the scene of the kidnapping and rape of a nine-year-old boy back in 1974. When the tests were finally done this year, the results clearly demonstrated that the wrong man had been charged, convicted and imprisoned.
No one can give James Bain those 35 years back, but his experience underscores again that our system of law is not without flaws and can allow innocent people to be imprisoned for decades. The good news, however, is that there are national groups like The Innocence Project that continue to work on behalf of people who have been falsely accused of heinous crimes.
Bain is the 248th person who has been exonerated of crimes due to DNA testing in our nation, according to the group.
The details of his case are chilling.
“The victim described the perpetrator and the victim’s uncle said the description sounded like James Bain,” according to The Innocence Project’s press release yesterday. “The victim then viewed a photo lineup and identified Bain as the perpetrator. He would later say in a deposition that he had been asked to ‘pick out Jimmie Bain.'”
When he was arrested, Bain was 19 years old. He maintained that he was at home with his younger sister at the time the crime has been committed. His denials went unheeded and he was arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
In this case, it took repeated legal attempts by attorneys from the Innocence Project of Florida, a six-year-old non-profit group that uses DNA testing to help innocent prisoners in Florida obtain their freedom and rebuild their lives, to get a judge to order the tests.
This is a classic example of how justice delayed is truly justice denied. James Bain was allowed to rot in a Florida prison even though DNA evidence could have and should have exonerated him long ago. Shame on the Florida judiciary, shame on the county prosecutor and shame on all who contributed to this long, sad, unfair and miserable miscarriage of justice.
What this case — and the hundreds just like it that have occurred in recent years across our nation — illustrates is that justice is never perfect, but that it can be corrected as long as their are people who make it their business to fight for those who are wrongly accused.
It also clearly shows that because justice can be imperfect, irreversible penalties such as death sentences should never be permitted. If a prisoner is given a death sentence, and it is carried out, then finality is all that is left. And in Bain’s case, it would have been a tragic miscarriage of “justice” had the circumstances of his case never received further reviews.
Convicted killer Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas may not have been so fortunate. He was charged and convicted in the murders of his three young children in 1991 in a house fire, which was ruled an arson. He denied that he set the fire and refused to sign a plea agreement, choosing to let his story come out in court. After a dramatic trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was put to death in February, 2004, by lethal injection in a Texas prison.
Five years later, in a 17-page analysis story published this September in The New Yorker, serious questions were raised about the techniques, conclusions and analysis done in the arson investigation in Willingham’s case. The tragedy is that though the questions raised could have impacted his case, Willingham had already been killed and he could not seek appeals based on the new information that could potentially have cleared him.
Some critics insist that justice is always fair, always right and that the accused are always guilty.
Remember that if you are James Bain or Cameron Todd Willingham and are accused of a crime that you insist you did not commit.
Death penalties are not the answer.
Justice, even justice delayed, is the only and ultimate answer.
James Bain’s tortuous case and his ultimately proper release from prison is proof of that.