Movin' On with Nellie: Ground Hog Day and rights to remain innocent

It’s Ground Hog Day and that’s all I’ll say about that. But more importantly, you have the right to remain innocent and as Quick Draw McGraw’s buddy Baba Looey said, “…and don’t you forget it!”

From the recent series on Netflix based on the 2006 non-fiction book by John Grisham, “The Innocent Man” we learn that talking too quickly to police and detectives can have lifelong consequences.

Likewise, Law Professor James Duane wrote “You have the right to remain innocent” in 2016 and continues to speak about constitutional rights. His talks are on YouTube, too. Driving to Alamosa the other day, I listened to his interview on 90.1 Taos. When the police come calling, he recommends saying, “I would be glad to talk to you with my lawyer present.”

Duane cites the many cases of The Innocence Project,  ( founded in 1992 and exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system.

However, on many crime shows, we have learned asking, “Do you have a warrant?” has moved anyone to the “top of the list.” On Discovery ID, The Homicide Hunter Joe Kenda makes this assumption repeatedly. Though most shows follow protocol and eventually eliminate those with “solid alibis,” each innocent/guilty has endured police questioning and even being held until they are deemed innocent. Fictional movies and series also carry this perception. A famous fictionalized true story is The Fugitive.

Currently the Innocence Project’s website says that there have been 362 prisoners cleared of wrong doing and another 158 alternative perpetrators identified. These figures alone should reiterate to all of us to remain silent, ask for a warrant, and have a lawyer before talking to police.

Our society seems to be in a Ground Hog Day loop, as in the 1993 movie. It seems so because despite the 362 exonerated cases, police continue to repeat what isn’t working justly but moving ahead with repeated pull overs or wrongfully (without warrants) seizing property, even vehicles parked legally on private property. People, too, keep talking without representation. Then many do not have funds for intense research.   

Some of this behavior is harassment and we saw this in the 48 hours episode on Ryan Ferguson. While in police custody, Ryan learned that witnesses lied, gave false confessions due to long, blistering interrogations (much like the Spanish Inquisition) and DNA didn’t match in his case.  Now freed after a decade of incarceration, Ryan notes he now keeps receipts and logs his locations as if he has to prove his whereabouts. The fear of arrest is always at hand. 

In Texas, the case of Larry Fuller illustrates how charges based only on an eye witness cannot always be trusted. He was identified and charged as the perpetrator of aggravated assault, then sentenced to 50 years. But with the Innocence Project help requesting DNA testing from a rape kit collected a quarter century earlier, Larry Fuller was released and pardoned in January 2007 by Texas Governor Rick Perry. He spent 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

As citizens, we need to collectively demand that our Fifth Amendment Rights be protected and not let any authority say otherwise. Though police often are under intense public pressure to solve crimes immediately, time to interview and research is needed. Remember Martin Luther King Jr. states, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…’ Finally, let’s work to solve this dilemma. Until then invoke the fifth … and don’t you forget it!

—Nelda Curtiss is a retired college professor who enjoys writing and fine arts. Contact her at [email protected]