America has the best justice system in the world, but it isn't perfect. I've witnessed that as a lawmaker.
Sometimes the guilty get off lightly -- or completely. Other times, the innocent are falsely convicted.
Before being elected to Congress in 2005, I was a lawmaker in the Ohio House of Representatives. I introduced legislation to make it easier for a judge to sentence to life in prison -- without the possibility of parole -- a murderer who admits guilt as part of a plea deal. The mother of a 15-year-old Milford boy who was beaten to death had asked for my help to ensure that such killers could be locked up for good.
Before that, as a member of the Miami Township board of trustees in my native Clermont County, I approved the installation of cameras in police cruisers. Such video evidence helps protect the rights of both police officers and citizens.
Last week, three people visited my Cincinnati office to ask for help regarding what they perceive as problems with Ohio's justice system. We spoke for more than two hours.
Before the meeting, they asked that I read a book, "False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent." It was co-written by Jim Petro, a Republican who was Ohio's attorney general from 2003 to 2007, and his wife, Nancy.
The book examines cases in which innocent Ohioans were falsely convicted for crimes they didn't commit. In one case, Clarence Elkins, a family man with no prior criminal record, was sentenced to life in prison for a murder and two rapes that DNA testing proved he could not have committed.
Law students at the University of Cincinnati, working with the Ohio Innocence Project based at UC, joined with the falsely convicted man's wife and others to advocate for the release of Elkins.
State Senator Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who was described in the book as one of the brightest public officials in Ohio and perhaps the state's most conservative, telephoned Attorney General Jim Petro to alert him to this travesty of justice in a Summit County court.
Summit County prosecutors and judges were reluctant to admit an error had been made -- until Jim Petro made a public stand as Ohio attorney general against the false conviction.
As a result of the grass-roots effort to prove that Elkins was innocent, the real killer was identified -- through DNA testing. But by then, Elkins had languished in prison for nearly eight years -- and his two sons grew up without him. Elkins got about $1 million from Ohio taxpayers as compensation.
The Petros make a case that such false convictions might have resulted in thousands of Americans being wrongly imprisoned. If that's true, this is a national problem.
Misconduct by police and prosecutors has contributed to some wrong verdicts, Jim Petro writes. Reversing conviction errors on appeal is a "long, difficult, and expensive struggle." And "while most men and women who work in the criminal justice system are well meaning, committed, and deserving of our respect, they typically do not have the authority, resources, perspective, time, or inclination to change the system."
The book recommends "reforms achieved through legislation, policy, and court opinion. However, these will not occur until conventional wisdom catches up with the truths revealed in this DNA age."
Among Jim Petro's recommendations are the video recording of custodial interrogations -- and the taking of DNA samples from those arrested for felony crimes. Such "improved practices are gradually gaining acceptance but have met with resistance from some prosecutors and law enforcement officers not only in Ohio but nationwide," Jim Petro writes.
One of my core beliefs is in the sanctity of human life -- from conception to natural death. All life is precious, and I will do everything in my power to safeguard the lives of those who are innocent. I have begun making telephone calls to Ohio's top law enforcement officials. I have scheduled a meeting for this week with a county prosecutor.
As the Petros note in "False Justice," by "advocating reforms, we will not only stop the destruction that comes with wrongful convictions but will also make the United States safer."
If we are imprisoning innocent people, then the actual criminals are likely still out on the streets -- preying on the rest of us.
I want the real criminals locked up -- for the good of all law-abiding citizens.