Mark Godsey and the precious resource of time

“Blind Injustice” author takes on our “medieval” criminal justice system

– By Julie Kemble Borths

 

Time haunts Mark Godsey.

The University of Cincinnati law professor and director of the Ohio Innocence Project never has enough of it. With a family that includes wife Michele and five children (the youngest are twin 6-month-olds), plus classroom responsibilities and oversight of a legal clinic involving UC Law students, his days are more than full.

But the time of those wrongfully behind bars haunts him the most: years wasted when men and women, convicted in error and removed from their family and friends, no longer can pursue their dreams.

Mark Godsey at a book signing of ‘Blind Injustice’

“Opening the eyes” of Americans who don’t understand how wrongful convictions occur – and how the guilty can remain free – is why Godsey spent the last three years writing “Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions.” Published in October 2017, the book chronicles the lessons the Hyde Park resident has learned and the people he has met as director of the OIP.

Godsey, working with other clinical professors and a team of energetic students, has overseen cases in which 25 prisoners have been released on the grounds of innocence. Whether through litigation involving DNA testing, new witnesses, expert testimony or evidence of police misconduct, Godsey said the OIP sheds light on the criminal justice system and its flaws.

From prosecutor to defender 

His passion for this work is even more remarkable given his early career.

Fresh from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Godsey, now 49, became a prosecutor in New York. But he had his eye on teaching criminal law. When a position opened at Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law, he took it. A professor who oversaw the new innocence project there was on sabbatical, so Godsey took his place. And law students got a chance at real-world experience.

“I was reluctant,” Godsey said. He also was skeptical. Didn’t prosecutors like himself have a passion for the facts? A commitment to punishing the bad guys?

At Fairfield High School, Godsey had been student council president, and he enjoyed politics. Although his family discussed social justice and political topics, he did not see himself as a liberal do-gooder. He was the kind of guy who would become a prosecutor.

But with the first innocence case he supervised at Chase, his team overturned a wrongful conviction. Godsey said he realized innocence work was not just a fad, but was necessary for the legal system.

In 2003, he moved to the Rosenthal Institute for Justice at UC Law, funded by a gift from Lois and Richard Rosenthal. Encouraged by the legal community, including then-Cincinnati councilman John Cranley, Godsey took over the institute’s primary component: the innocence project.

Since then, he has spoken worldwide and contributed to discussions about criminal law and wrongful conviction in the national press. He pressed for changes in Ohio law to admit additional evidence after a conviction. And he became a passionate teacher who challenges his students, both in the classroom and in the OIP.

“We’ve had the same criminal justice system for hundreds of years. And 100 years from now, they will look back at us as if we were medieval.” -Mark Godsey

“We’ve had the same criminal justice system for hundreds of years,” Godsey said. “And 100 years from now, they will look back at us as if we were medieval.”

In his book, Godsey said, he emphasizes how society needs to “wake up” and see how psychological theories of the 1800s still color America’s criminal justice system. It’s an approach that says jurors can tell instantly whether someone is telling the truth. It is a deep-seated belief that no one would confess unless he or she were truly guilty and a belief system that elevates the accuracy of any first-person account.

Mark Godsey with his wife Michelle and five children

But in case after case, innocence project efforts have shown the flaws of those psychological theories. Godsey said his book addresses several reasons why these flaws exist, including confirmation bias, the power of suggestion and the inability of people to accurately recall events, especially emotional ones. Much social science research on all three elements shows that humans are more likely to believe things that support what they already believe, that they can be easily led – even to the point of confession – by the suggestion they did do something, and that human memory is prone to mistakes. But this research has not changed the way police investigate crimes, governments prosecute them or courts try them. And it has not changed the way politicians discuss criminal justice.

These powerful and complex problems propel “Blind Injustice” and inspire others to take a closer look.

The arts take notice

For its 2019 season, Cincinnati Opera is partnering with the Godsey and OIP, as well as the Young Professionals Choral Collective, to present “Blind Injustice.” The first work commissioned as part of CO Next: Diverse Voices, it is based on interviews with six people exonerated through OIP efforts and featured in the book. And it is overseen by Marcus Küchle, director of artistic operations and new works development at Cincinnati Opera and the co-artistic director of Opera Fusion: New Works.

Küchle said the exonerees’ stories are operatic because of the “epic injustices they had to endure.”

“The key question for this piece is, how does this happen? Is this the cost of doing business? What about the love and longing for family and friends that you literally cannot get back?” Küchle said.

“As we’ve interviewed them (the exonerees), I’ve also been impressed by the grace with which they all speak about it. The forgiveness. The way they have all moved beyond. And that is what will make this such a compelling piece.”

Beyond that project, a documentary series is in the works.

Kelly Nyks, a New York-based film writer, director and producer, said the series “will strive to shine a light on the work of Mark Godsey and the team at the innocence project. With the focus on social justice front-and-center in the national conversation, there could not be a better time to bring these tremendously compelling human stories to the fore.”

“If time is our most precious resource, then wrongful incarceration is its most egregious theft.” -Kelly Nyks

“There has been a huge disconnect which makes us blind to injustice,” Godsey said. “Because we believe we have the best criminal justice system in the world, we kept thinking we’d gotten it right.”

Now, “we are in a period of awakening,” Godsey said. “There are two major reforms going on right now: questioning mass incarceration and taking another look at innocence.

“It’s a good time to be alive.”


‘Blind Injustice’ and you…

MEET: Mark Godsey at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Commons, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30, as he signs and discusses his book, “Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions.”

WATCH FOR: Cincinnati Opera’s production in 2019 of “Blind Injustice,” the first new work to be commissioned as part of the opera’s Next: Diverse Voices. The partnership includes the Ohio Innocence Project and the Young Professionals Choral Collective. 

IN THE WORKS: A documentary series by film producer Kelly Nykes of PF Pictures, who has written, produced and directed a number of recent films

TEDx TALK: See Godsey talk about his work at youtu.be/QHZYdm4enJ0

LEARN MORE: The national Innocence Network at innocenceproject.org and the local Ohio Innocence Project at law.uc.edu/oip.

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