The case is tragic: an 11 year old child of divorce, mad at her father and wanting him gone from her life, falsely accused him of rape. He languished in prison for ten years until his daughter finally admitted what she had done, and he was released.
Conviction of the innocent happens. But when it is born of lies, rather than honest mistakes, it deserves our special attention, even if victims' advocates claim false accusations rarely happen.
It's hard to blame the girl here: she was young, distraught, and didn't fully understand what was happening. That's not to fully absolve her, of course: she did something wrong, and at the time she must have had at least some sense that it was wrong. But we cannot lay the errors of a broken system at her feet.
The most worrying thing is the prosecutor's statement:
She [Cowlitz County Prosecutor Sue Baur] told the newspaper she continues to rethink every detail of the Longview case and recently listened to a tape of the child's testimony, yet doesn't see that the legal system did anything wrong.
The legal system did something wrong. It did something terribly wrong. It convicted an innocent man, and locked him away in a tiny cage for ten years.
The legal system does things wrong every day: it sentences people to excessive terms in prison; it pursues "remedies" that accomplish nothing, or exacerbate the very problems they're intended to solve; and it perpetuates social inequalities in its imperfect search for justice.
But the imprisonment of an innocent man is the second most heinous thing the legal system can do, only slightly behind execution of the innocent.
For the prosecutor to say that there were no mistakes in this case would be laughable if it weren't so scary. It's a complete abdication of responsibility by an official whom we trust with extreme power precisely because we demand that she handle it responsibly.
It's not clear how the system can be fixed to reduce the risk of grave injustices such as this one. But one thing is clear: the first step must involve an acknowledgment by those who control the system that something went wrong.