an ordinary crime
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a picture of ofra bikel

A longtime award-winning FRONTLINE producer, Bikel in recent years has focused her reporting on the U.S. criminal justice system. Between 1991 and 1997, she produced the "Innocence Lost" trilogy: three films that detailed charges of sexual abuse at a day-care center in Edenton, N.C. The series won three duPont-Columbia Awards, an Emmy, and the Sidney Hillman Foundation Prize. More importantly, the series resulted in freedom for all seven defendants.

In 1999, Bikel's "The Case for Innocence" profiled three longtime inmates who had been fighting for the right to undergo DNA tests that could prove their innocence. Within a few months after the program was broadcast, all three had been exonerated and freed. For her body of work on America's justice system, Bikel was honored in 2000 with the "Champion of Justice" award given by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

How did the Terence Garner story come to your attention?

I read about it some time ago in a Raleigh, N.C. newspaper and it sort of piqued my curiosity. I decided to investigate it a little bit; made a few phone calls, read more articles, and examined the various transcripts of the case.

I thought it was worth a look, and so on my way to Florida in the spring of 2001 to finish another story for FRONTLINE, I thought I might as well stop in North Carolina and talk to as many people as I could. Once there, I realized that there was a very interesting and, I thought, important story to tell there.

What options are left for Terence Garner? For example, what can the governor do?

The two possibilities now for Garner are federal court and another motion in state court. [Editors' note: See the FAQs section of this site for details.] In addition, a request to pardon Terence Garner, or to commute his sentence, could go at any time to North Carolina's governor.

Why do you call it "an ordinary crime"? What is the significance of this case?

I call it "An Ordinary Crime" because after you see how ordinary it was -- an armed robbery which, as the judge says, happens every few minutes all over the country -- only then you realize how flawed the system is. This ordinary crime was handled exactly the way the system prescribes: A verdict by a jury, then, after new evidence surfaced, a re-hearing by the judge, an appeal in front of the State Court of Appeals, then before the State Supreme Court. All rejected, leaving almost everyone acquainted with the case with the feeling that justice was not done. In this particular case, one could understand the jury's verdict. But what happened after the sentence is baffling. Why didn't Terence Garner get another trial? How could they uphold the verdict knowing what they knew? It's very difficult to understand.

What do you take from this case?

What I take from this is that the U.S. criminal justice system -- considered by most people to be the best justice system in the world -- is very badly flawed, and more than anyone wants to see or admit.

In your documentary, the judge and the prosecutor are very certain that justice was served -- that there wasn't any error, and Terence Garner doesn't warrant a new trial. What is behind such certainty? Might it be they can't bear to consider changing their mind about Garner's guilt? Is it a mindset? The prosecutors see their job as getting a conviction, period?

In most  cases I examined, it all started with lousy police work and, many times,  police misconduct. Then it goes from there. All of the above. I think that there certainly is a mindset. Most people don't like to admit they are wrong, and prosecutors and judges, I'm afraid, can't face it either. It is very difficult for them to overturn a conviction, and admit publicly that they had made a mistake and the person they called an animal, and who had already spent time in prison, is actually innocent and the perpetrator is walking around free. Consequently, most of them fight with all their might to uphold the conviction. It is sad, but true. Human vanity, arrogance, a future career, politics, trump everything else.

But what about serving justice?

This is the big question. I think that justice many time falls by the wayside. I'm not a lawyer, and I don't consider myself an ace investigator. And yet I've met too many people who, but for my programs for FRONTLINE, would have been in prison for the rest of their lives. Something is very wrong with that. I cannot be that good or that lucky to find the only cases where innocent people are sentenced to life in prison and even death. Think of all the people no one does programs about.

But going back to your question, there are a few problems with the prosecutors. First, because it is an adversarial system and the defense's job is to defend their client in any way they can (within the boundaries of the law, which is quite flexible), the prosecution, as the adversary, wants to do just the opposite of the defense: convict the defendant in any way they can. So it is a contest.

The problem is that the prosecution has a double function. Besides being one side in a contest, they are supposed to represent the people and to see that justice is done. This double-headed function in a cutthroat adversarial system is very hard to maintain. Unfortunately, I have not met too many prosecutors who spend sleepless nights over the fact that they won the case but sent an innocent person to prison.

The prosecutors are not villains, but they look at a case and they see people who they think are guilty go free because of smart-ass, manipulative attorneys and they are furious. So they too cut corners, and blind themselves many times to the truth, or at least to doubt.

If the adversarial system seems at the root of the problem, from your perspective, is there another system somewhere else that is any better?

I don't know other systems very well. Some scholars think that the French system -- which is about finding out the truth -- results in just sentences. I don't know if the adversarial system is the root of the problem, or plea bargaining is the root of the problem. I think the problem has several roots.

I think the adversarial system, combined with the fact that the truth is not really relevant, is baffling and should baffle every American. Think about it: just because you are innocent, you are not [necessarily] going to win your case. And if you are guilty, it doesn't necessarily follow that you will be convicted.

There is a sort of peculiar belief here in the U.S. criminal justice system that if two attorneys present their versions of a story (as flamboyantly as possible) to 12 people who never heard any of the facts, and each brings into court witnesses to buttress their stories, then the truth will come out. This is a fallacy. The better story will come out, not the truth. (To say nothing about the fact that the jury doesn't know much of what really goes on. How many times have we seen on television a juror say, "If only I had known that ...".)

I am always amazed that when people talk about the justice system, the symbol they cite of it not working is the O.J. Simpson trial. But you know what I think? The O.J. trial went exactly the way the system prescribed. I thought it was perfect: the best lawyers, good prosecution, witnesses, jurors. What else is needed? The only thing wrong with it was that it was televised and people saw that justice was not done, they felt the truth did not win. But this is the system. It is not about truth.

In most of the cases I examined, it all started with lousy police work and, many times, police misconduct. Then it goes from there. Once a mistake is made it is very hard to overturn because of all the reasons I mentioned above: vanity, politics, etc.

Do the problems inherent in the adversarial system seem central to you in the Garner case?

I don't think that it is connected to the adversarial system as such. Or maybe in general it is. But it also is connected with our free-market system. When you are rich, you buy better health care, quicker transplants, longer life, than the poor. And it is the same with the justice system. When you are rich, you get attorneys who have lots of help, who can hire investigators and experts, play a better game and get better justice.

What keeps you returning to this landscape?

I often decide not to, but once you start researching any of these kinds of cases (and I get dozens -- from prisoners, parents, etc.) and realize that injustice has been done, it is very difficult, for me at least, to leave it.

Americans are good people and once they know that injustice has taken place, they get angry, they phone, they write, they demand, they act. The problem is that someone has to tell them what is going on, because they don't know. So I let them know every now and then. Also, there is a more selfish reason. On my walls I have quite a few awards hanging, but the ones I really cherish are a few which say something like, "Thank you for bringing my story to the world. Without your efforts I would not have gained my freedom." Those are the kinds of awards which are hard to give up.

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