Two stories involving individuals who were falsely accused of crimes have been in the news recently. But unfortunately, says Michelle Gesse, they are the exception rather than the rule. Here, she explains why there may be more innocent people in prison than you might think…and what you need to know about being falsely accused.
If you’ve been following the news recently, you may have heard of Life After Death, a newly released autobiographical book by Damien Echols. Echols is a member of the so-called “West Memphis Three,” three Arkansas teenagers who were convicted of murder based on flimsy evidence in 1994, and who were finally freed in 2011 after new DNA evidence came to light. You might also have heard the story of Brian Banks, a 26-year-old man from Long Beach, California, who served over five years in prison for kidnapping and raping a childhood friend—a crime his accuser now admits he didn’t commit. Four months after his release, Banks has been signed by the Las Vegas Locomotives, a professional football team.
It’s easy to see stories like these and assume that false accusations, and especially false convictions, are rare…and that furthermore, when they do happen, justice eventually prevails. But according to Michelle Gesse, whose husband, Steven, was falsely accused of a crime in 2009, you’d be wrong.
“As my family learned the hard way, when you’re accused of a crime, you are treated as though you’re guilty until proven innocent by the public and by the criminal justice system,” says Gesse, author of the new book Bogus Allegations: The Injustice of Guilty Until Proven Innocent (Johnson Books, March 2012, ISBN: 978-1-55566-450-3, $17.95). “And unless you have the financial and emotional resources to fight the accusation, you probably won’t end up walking free.”
In her book, Gesse chronicles the compelling story of what happened from the night when a dinner party guest falsely accused Steven of threatening him with a firearm to Steven’s acquittal seven months later. Told through Michelle’s eyes, it reveals the price of proving one’s innocence (in the Gesses’ case, a small fortune), the truth about plea bargains, how the accused are treated like criminals by the criminal justice system and the media, and much more.
“That’s not what I had pictured ‘justice’ to be before experience taught me otherwise,” Gesse shares. “And I know that our story could easily have ended differently, with Steven a convicted criminal and possibly behind bars.
“I now believe that there are many innocent people who have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit because they didn’t know how to navigate the justice system, weren’t given good advice, and were pressured into accepting a plea bargain,” she continues. “And unfortunately, men like Brian Banks and the West Memphis Three are the exception to the rule. Most wrongfully convicted individuals never have their names cleared or get a second chance at life, however belated.”
While it’s Gesse’s fervent hope that you or a loved one are never falsely accused of a crime, she’s adamant that it’s crucial to be prepared for the possibility. Here, she shares five things she has learned from experience:
The world gets so focused on a conviction that justice can fall by the wayside. When a crime has been committed, the world wants the perpetrator to be punished. So when a suspect has been identified, the media and the criminal justice system go after that person full force—it’s the modern-day version of an Old West posse riding out in pursuit of bandits. Unfortunately, in the midst of all the “excitement,” a little thing called “justice” often falls by the wayside.
“The point is, the world wants crimes to be resolved,” Gesse explains. “People—even police investigators and lawyers—might not truly care what the truth is, as long as someone is caught and punished. And the higher profile the case, the bigger the witch hunt.
“Unfortunately, even if they do have the best of intentions, it’s easy for judges, jurors, and the general public to develop biases toward and incorrect opinions about accused individuals—with devastating consequences. For instance, weeks after his trial, Steven and I learned via one of the jurors that most members of the jury assumed he was guilty of something, and tried their best to make the evidence they’d heard support that conclusion. Thankfully, they were unable to do so.”
This isn’t television—so don’t expect anyone to fight for you. If you have ever watched one of the many television shows or movies that’s based around the legal system, you might take it for granted that the law officers, investigators, and prosecutors are going to search for the truth and fully examine the evidence before prosecuting. According to Gesse, that’s Hollywood—reality looks very different.
“If you’ve never been involved in the legal system, you probably have faith in it,” says Gesse. “I did. But the truth is no one is going the extra mile to get to the truth. The criminal justice system in the U.S. is a ‘flow system,’ and its goal is to dispose of as many cases as quickly as possible. So unless you’re paying a large sum of money to a good lawyer, chances are that no one is spending any more time on your case than absolutely necessary. No one is fighting for you—to the system, you and your case are just a number. And unfortunately, you’re not likely to find a real-life version of one of John Grisham’s fired-up, indefatigable protagonists working as a public defender.”
The prosecution’s burden of proof isn’t as heavy as you might think. Again, what you see on TV and what happens in real life are two different things. As Gesse has pointed out, the criminal justice system is focused on pushing cases through with as little time and expense as possible, so don’t expect a dramatic trial in which the prosecution is forced to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that you committed a crime. Instead, expect to be prosecuted even if the facts and evidence don’t support a guilty verdict.
“Unless your case is extremely high-profile, it’s unlikely that the prosecutor will even review the case file until shortly before the trial,” Gesse says. “And as the cases of Brian Banks and the West Memphis Three prove, convictions and sentences can happen based on very questionable evidence—or even a lack thereof.
“Thanks in large part to our very capable attorney, my husband, Steven, was found innocent by a jury…but that didn’t stop the prosecution from going after him despite the fact that their case was built entirely on speculation and accusations that were impossible to verify.”
Hire the best lawyer you can afford. If you are falsely accused of a crime and decide to proceed to trial, don’t skimp on a lawyer. This is not the time to save money. Remember, you generally get what you pay for, and the caliber of your legal representation can (and probably will) have a huge impact on the rest of your life. If you go to trial, you’ll want the best lawyer you can afford…or, notes Gesse, perhaps one who is even a little more expensive than you can afford.
“Steven and I spent a large chunk of our life savings on his defense, but we both agreed the expense was more than worth it to keep him from going to jail for something he didn’t do,” she shares. “And while public defenders are an option, the reality is that they are overworked and, in many cases, will encourage you to take a plea bargain, which is the easiest and fastest ‘solution.’ I understand that Brian Banks, while innocent, went to prison on a reduced sentence because he listened to this advice from his lawyer.
“After my family’s ordeal, I have come to believe that the innocent need excellent legal help even more than the guilty,” she adds. “That’s because they are likely to be blindsided, confused, and totally inexperienced when it comes to navigating the criminal justice system. So mortgage your house, max out your credit lines, accept help from friends and family, or do whatever you have to do to get the best lawyer you can. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that it will all work out because you’re innocent.”
Expect to become a pariah. If you are wrongfully accused of a crime, you’ll probably be surprised and saddened by the number of people in your life who don’t want to be involved. People whom you had considered to be friends may pull away, become distant, or even refuse to help. Unfortunately, many individuals may feel so awkward even approaching the topic that they avoid it, denying you the support you need so badly. Sadly, other “friends” may assume that since you have been arrested, you are probably guilty.
“A neighbor Steven and I had considered to be a very close friend attended the dinner party that sparked our whole nightmare,” Gesse recalls. “We assumed that of course he would be fully ‘on our side’ and willing to do whatever was necessary to clear Steven’s name. However, this man initially refused to even speak to our lawyer. He and his wife considered the situation to be ‘something between two neighbors’ and didn’t want to get involved. Steven and I were bitterly disappointed by what we saw as abandonment and betrayal. However, I do want to point out that other friends stepped up and went above and beyond the call of duty throughout those long seven months.
“Steven, as well as Brian Banks and the West Memphis Three, were fortunate in that their names were publicly cleared,” she adds. “Despite the fact that their terrible experiences can never be erased, they will be able to live out the rest of their lives as innocent men. Sadly, the taint is never removed for many people who are falsely accused of a crime.”
“I used to think that the innocent had nothing to fear,” Gesse concludes. “Now I know that the opposite is true. Our country’s criminal justice system puts the heaviest burden on the defendant…whether the accusations are well-founded or not. It is both frightening and heartbreaking that individuals like Brian Banks and the West Memphis Three must pay the price with years of their lives.”
About the Author:
Michelle Gesse, author of Bogus Allegations: The Injustice of Guilty Until Proven Innocent, is a native of Chicago, IL. She earned a BS in mathematics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and completed her MBA at the University of Chicago. She spent 15 years in banking, working for Northern Trust in Chicago and Chase Manhattan in New York. From 1992 to 2011, Michelle successfully owned and ran a manufacturing company in Boulder, CO.
Michelle lives in Boulder, CO, with her husband, Steven. Before the incident described in Bogus Allegations, Michelle and Steven never thought that they would get involved in the criminal justice system.
For more information, please visit www.michellegesse.com.
About the Book:
Bogus Allegations: The Injustice of Guilty Until Proven Innocent (Johnson Books, March 2012, ISBN: 978-1-55566-450-3, $17.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, and at www.michellegesse.com