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Criminal Justice Magazine
Fall 2000
Volume 15, Issue 3

Chair’s Report to Members

By Ralph C. Martin II

The "Relativity" of Integrity and Justice

A man was taking it easy, laying on the grass and looking up at the clouds.
He was identifying shapes when he decided to talk to God.
"God, how long is a million years?" he asked.
God answered, "In my frame of reference, it’s about a minute."
The man asked, "God, how much is a million dollars?"
God answered, "To me it is a penny."
The man then asked, "God, can I have a penny?"
God answered, "In a minute."

All things being relative, the would-be millionaire had his prayer answered. The term "relative" is described in my desktop dictionary as "considered in comparison to or in relationship to something else; dependent upon or interconnected with something else for intelligibility or significance; not absolute." In that regard, the Criminal Justice Section Council is certainly a "relative" organization. Its success is highly dependent upon the interconnectedness of its constituents (prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and academics). It is a "relative" organization also because, like the man hoping for God’s largesse, each of the constituents has his or her own set of expectations and perceptions about what is fair.

I now have the privilege of assuming the chair of the Criminal Justice Section Council. While my professional experiences as a prosecutor and defense attorney have certainly shaped me, I think I speak for most members of the Council in saying that my views of the criminal arena have expanded through my involvement with the Council. It is the only forum that I know of where people who practice within the adversarial system spend great amounts of time and energy (if not money) to reach a consensus about the prominent issues that affect the quality of justice in our country.

The wrongful conviction of innocent people has generated a great deal of publicity and threatened to polarize the constituents of the Council, as well as criminal practitioners. It is one of the most prominent issues facing the Council over the near term and has been debated within Congress, state legislatures, courts, and the ABA. Although the number of documented wrongful convictions hovers at or about 80 [at press time], these reports have fostered charges and recriminations among many of the constituents represented within the Council. With the assistance of DNA testing, we are now learning that people convicted by eyewitness testimony and other evidence serve time for crimes they did not commit. Although there are questions that should be asked, and lessons learned from these wrongful convictions, finding the right forum in which to find the answers to these questions is not easy.

My predecessor as chair, Bruce Lyons, was instrumental in bringing this issue to the attention of the Council. I now have the responsibility of assembling a "study group" to dissect the wrongful conviction cases. The effort will be known as the Task Force to Study the Integrity of the Criminal Trial Process. The subject matter is daunting, but we cannot afford to walk away from this responsibility—taking a walk on this issue would mean squandering an opportunity to unite the "relative" views of criminal practitioners. The Council’s atmosphere enables even the most vigorous adversaries to pursue a common goal. In this instance, restoring faith in the integrity of the criminal trial process is a compelling objective and worth the considerable time that the Council will spend on it.

Ralph C. Martin II is the district attorney for Suffolk County, Boston, Massachusetts, and chair of the Criminal Justice Section

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