News 04.09.09

Race and Wrongful Conviction in Connecticut

When Miguel Roman was arrested in 1988 for the murder of a 17-year-old Connecticut woman, he was interrogated mostly in English – a language he didn’t speak. His trial proceeded in English, and despite Roman’s continuous claims of innocence, he was convicted. He would serve two decades in prison before DNA proved his innocence and implicated another man in the crime.


A column by Helen Urbiñas in today’s Hartford Courant

argues that a language and cultural barrier may have contributed to Roman’s wrongful conviction. She goes on to say that society’s lukewarm welcome for Roman’s exoneration may also be colored by his limited command of the language.

When I spoke some months ago to a juror who had served on Roman's case, he recalled Roman's demeanor, how disconnected he seemed from it all, how difficult it was to read him. I asked the juror then if he thought that Roman's inability to speak English well had anything to do with it. Maybe, he said.

It's a question that underscores the importance of what the Innocence Project is trying to do — using DNA, science, to offset some of the biases that creep into our courts. Of the 235 convicts exonerated through DNA testing in the U.S, nearly three-quarters were people of color.

This argument has been raised before – even in Roman’s case. In 1992, the Connecticut Supreme Court denied an appeal from Roman argued that his conviction had been unconstitutional. One justice – Robert Berdon – dissented. He wrote:

When the defendant’s primary language is Spanish, and the police officers insist on conducting the interrogations in English, the entire process smacks of unfairness that will results in the perception by the Hispanic community that the criminal justice system is titled against them….In order for the public to have confidence in our criminal justice system, it is important not only that we do justice but also that all racial and ethnic segments of our population perceive that justice is done.

In his dissent, Berdon went on to quote another of his recent dissents in 1992, in the case of James Calvin Tillman:

In our system of justice, not only must the accused be afforded a fair trial, but equally important there must be a perception of fairness by the community and the accused. Anything less not only undermines the credibility of this branch of government but also threatens the very fabric of our democracy.

As many readers of this blog know,

Tillman was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2006

. Although signs of unfairness were evident in the cases of both Tillman and Roman in 1992, it would be more than 14 years before either attained justice.

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