Two words buried in a court document should strike our collective conscience like a lightning bolt.
“(Brian Dripps) confirmed that he entered (Angie) Dodge’s apartment by himself with a knife with the intent to rape her, that he did in fact rape her, that he held a knife to her throat during the commission of the rape, and had cut her throat.”
“By himself.” In other words, not with Christopher Tapp, who spent nearly half his life in prison for her murder.
Those two words suggest a terrible crime. Not only the 1996 rape and murder of Dodge — but a second crime.
What we as a people, through our justice system, did to Tapp.
Evidence has long been mounting that Tapp was wrongfully convicted. With Dripps’ confession and DNA match, how can any doubt remain?
It is not yet certain how the justice system will respond to Dripps’ statement that he entered Dodge’s apartment “by himself” with the intent of committing rape. Police and prosecutors have said they need time to carefully vet and corroborate the details of Dripps’ confession, to be certain that Tapp was not there when Dodge was murdered. That is an understandable response.
The actions of Chief Bryce Johnson since taking office give us a large measure of confidence in his integrity. Though he has our confidence, it is not lost on us that for 23 years the justice system has proven incapable of doing justice in this case. We are watching closely.
Many have criticized the unethical, manipulative interrogation and polygraph sessions conducted by officers Jared Fuhriman, Ken Brown and Steve Finn that led to Tapp’s confession. How they fed him nonpublic details of the crime, led him to believe he might have repressed memories that a polygraph could reveal like an oracle, and offered him a choice between freedom if he confessed and the gas chamber if he didn’t. Those criticisms are well justified, and there ought to be consequences.
But those shameful individual acts should not distract us from a more fundamental problem — a problem not of a few flawed men, but of a flawed system.
Some have claimed it is the great virtue of the justice system that it corrects its own errors. This week we know that it does not.
Releasing an innocent man after 20 years have been robbed from him does not restore his life. Moving to dismiss his conviction does not undo the stain put upon his name for nearly a quarter century. Justice too long delayed is indeed justice denied.
It is worth remembering that Tapp fought these charges at trial, on appeal, through motions for post-conviction relief and through numerous other legal channels. Despite the glaring, gaping holes in the case against him, the system failed each and every time to deliver justice.
After the initial jury verdict, no court ever took a comprehensive view of the evidence in the case. Without new evidence, the only questions the courts considered were whether prosecutors had improperly withheld evidence, or whether Tapp’s original lawyer had failed to adequately represent him, or whether some portions of the interrogations had taken place in violation of his right to counsel.
Bound to address only “procedural justice,” the courts missed justice itself.
Today, Tapp is free. But that outcome was far from certain.
Tapp had the great luck to catch the attention of Judges for Justice and the Idaho Innocence Project — and a dedicated lawyer in Public Defender John Thomas. Retired judges, FBI agents, geneticists, polygraphers and investigators volunteered hundreds of hours to prove his innocence.
If it were not for their extensive work — and especially that of Carol Dodge, Angie’s mother — Tapp would probably have died in a prison cell in Kuna.
How many other Tapps are pacing the floors in tiny cells right now?
A few names are often whispered locally. Michael Whiteley, imprisoned since 1991. Lanny Smith, imprisoned since 1996.
They have no large team of experts devoted to digging through their cases. But lawmakers could change that.
Many states and large cities have, in recent years, established groups called conviction review units made up of lawyers and full-time investigators dedicated to the investigation of convictions where there is a plausible claim of innocence. If the evidence, considered as a whole, isn’t sufficient to support a fresh conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, the unit can either vacate a conviction or order a new trial. They do what appellate courts do not.
Lawmakers should also pass a law that mandates compensation following wrongful conviction and imprisonment, as many other states do.
How much should a wrongfully convicted person be paid? To answer that question, ask yourself how much money you would accept to give up everything that happened in your life between the ages of 20 and 40 — friendships, college, marriage, kids, a career, all of it — and substitute two decades in a tiny cell, with no control over your life, under the constant threat of violence.
We must look our own crimes in the face. We must accept responsibility for them. We must atone for them.
And then we must take action to ensure we never do something like this again.
Until we have done that, all of us are guilty.