In matters of guilt and innocence, getting it right is time well spent

In the aftermath of the killing of a popular police officer, it’s only human nature to want someone to pay, and pay quickly. Sometimes, real life doesn’t work that way and there are good reasons it doesn’t.

Ryan Larson was released from jail today after prosecutors said they don’t have enough evidence to charge him in the shooting death of Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker last week.

If ever there was a compelling reason for news organizations to abide by their occasional policy of not naming suspects until a person is actually charged with a crime, this case may be it. But they didn’t and, already, social media is following a sadly predictable path.

“They better get him. They can’t let him get away with this,” one reader of WCCO’s Jason DeRusha commented on his Facebook page.

“He might want to fear for his life,” another said.

“That’s just not right!!” said a third.

Releasing Larson doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. It doesn’t mean he did do it. It means the justice system works.

What happens when it doesn’t?

Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee think they know. The two served 25 years in prison for the 1977 murder of an Iowa police officer. The Iowa Supreme Court freed the pair in 2003 after it found prosecutors concealed reports about another man seen near the crime scene with a shotgun, and two key witnesses recanted their testimony. They said cops pressured them into implicating Harrington and McGee.

The two are seeking compensation now.

A year ago in Georgia, seven of the nine non-police witnesses recanted their original testimony that Troy Davis killed a police officer. A group of experts, including one from Minnesota, testified that the evidence presented in the case may have led to the wrong man being charged.

Georgia executed him anyway.

“We’re in the business of making sure that we convict guilty people and, at the same time, exonerate innocent folks,” Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Assistant Superintendent Drew Evans tells the Star Tribune.

We live in a TV-crime-drama world. Over the course of an hour, we expect crimes to be solved. But real life is more complicated and sometimes it takes time to make sure that justice is done.

And sometimes we just have to accept that it’s time well spent.

  • B Joe

    Back in my day, we weren’t so spineless as to let inconveniences like “nonexistent evidence” or “lack of motive” get in the way of finding justice following the death of a police officer in the line of duty. If reality didn’t provide you with the evidence you needed to get a conviction because that evidence didn’t exist, you would generate that evidence yourself. We called it justice.

  • ce

    Sometimes I wonder how we’ve managed to survive this long as a species.

  • B Joe: I really hope you were being ironic when you wrote: “…you would generate that evidence yourself. We called it justice.”

  • B Joe


    The whole post was meant in jest.

    But just to be clear, I think that there are definitely police departments and prosecutors who have little concern for actual guilt and so would have few qualms about sending an innocent person to prison if doing so meant ‘solving’ the murder of a police officer.

    It doesn’t take a very comprehensive google search to turn up instances where police have been caught falsifying evidence or where prosecutors have willfully withheld information that would have proven the innocence of a defendant.

    **Standard disclaimer**

    I don’t think all cops are evil and I respect the necessity of their existence, but I’m not so naive as to assume that wearing a badge somehow inhibits a person’s ability to act in bad faith or break the law.

  • Pat Fair

    Jason DeRusha asks on Facebook: Where was the investigation botched?

    Why is there not enough evidence?

    Why didn’t anyone find the weapon?

    What exactly went down?

    My questions:Why are you seeking what can only be opinions, as opposed to facts, from people who have no direct knowledge or information?

    What is the value of those opinions?

    How do those opinions contribute to a productive discussion?

    If the majority of his commenters believe the investigaion was botched, does that make it so?

    Is this what passes for reporting?

  • Pat, I can only assume this is the first time you visited my Facebook page. Welcome!

    It troubles me that people are taking social media posts and comments and treating them as if they are pieces of reportage. Since 2007 I’ve been Tweeting and Facebooking, using social media to ask questions, to get people to think, to work through my own process of reporting before it goes on the air, to raise the curtain on the process.

    I’m not covering this story, nor am I asking Facebook what they think about those questions. I’m simply saying – these are questions.

    I certainly hope I’m allowed to post these kinds of thoughts in the morning (I think I was at the gym at the time) and raise issues, without being accused of being responsible for the downfall of reporting.

  • David

    I agree with Jason, but should add that he is indeed responsible for the downfall of reporting — just in other ways.