LAST week, Governor Ted Strickland commuted the sentence of Willie Knighten, a convicted murderer who had served 12 years of his 18-years-to-life sentence. It was done at the recommendation of the judge who had sentenced Knighten. Ironically, at the time of Knighten's release, the judge had been dead for almost six months.
The judge in this case, William Skow, was an amazing man. A graduate of the University of Michigan law school, Judge Skow wore many hats during his career. He served during the Vietnam War and earned a Bronze Star, practiced law in Toledo, and served as chief legislative assistant to the longtime Toledo Congressman Thomas 'Lud' Ashley in 1976.
For 22 years, he was a trial judge in Toledo, most of that time on the Lucas County Common Pleas Court, where he heard the Knighten case. Subsequently he was elected to the 6th District Court of Appeals that covers eight counties in north and northwest Ohio. Along the way he also served on the Ohio Supreme Court as a visiting justice.
I never had the honor of meeting him except once, and that was as a defendant in his court. More about that later.
It is not often that a judge or lawyer suffers the pangs of conscience and admits his or her mistake. The mistake in this case was to accept the testimony of unreliable witnesses, sidestep the incompetence of the defendant's lawyer, and be swept away by shoddy police work and an eager prosecutor.
Earlier this year, Judge Skow wrote to the Ohio Parole Board and said that over the years he had been increasingly persuaded that his findings were erroneous and that in fact it was more likely than not that Willie Knighten was innocent. He further said that this case had weighed heavily on his mind.
In his explanatory remarks about commutation, Governor Strickland mentioned Judge Skow's letter and the conversation governor's staff had with the judge as deciding factors.
We expect judges and lawyers to be honest, decisive, and compassionate. They are expected to be subservient to nothing but the law and they are supposed to administer justice scrupulously in the light of the laws and, where applicable, their inner moral compass. It is a tall order and many mortals fail. But it takes uncommon men and women to understand the enormous power that rests in their hands and, when mistakes are made, to admit them.
Between the so-called open and shut cases, there is a wide legal battle ground where prosecutors and defense lawyers tear each other apart to convince a judge or a jury of their point of view and claim a victory. It is not unusual to see unscrupulous prosecutors pushing cases not as much to have justice dispensed but to further their own careers. The history of the legal profession is replete with examples of overzealous prosecutors and district attorneys. Not all cases draw media attention like the Duke University lacrosse rape case in 2006.
In this context, many groups and organizations are actively pursuing cases where they think an injustice has happened. One such group is the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization that according to its mission statement is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustices. Similar work is being done at the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University and many other universities in the country.
It was this "broken system" that led George Ryan, the governor of Illinois, to commute death sentences to life imprisonment for 171 death row inmates in 2003.
Now, about my day in Judge Skow's court. I was a defendant in a lawsuit brought against a local hospital by an obnoxious and disgruntled surgeon whom the hospital had dismissed. What struck me about Judge Skow was the way he sat stooped on the bench in a rumpled suit and appearing marginally disheveled. He listened attentively and interjected appropriately. In the end, he ordered the lawyers to reach an out-of- court settlement because another defendant in the case, a physician, had tampered with crucial medical records.
His demeanor and his fairness favorably impressed me. Much later, when he won a seat on the 6th District court, I wrote him a congratulatory letter and wondered if he would spare some time for coffee and conversation. I did not hear from him.
After his death in June, 2009, of acute pancreatitis, Ron Korsog, a local lawyer, said that Judge Skow possessed the distinct quality of being able to rule against your position, call you a blathering idiot, and praise your abilities, all at the same time. He further said that many people disagreed with his opinions but few disagreed with his logic.
It would be a fitting tribute to this extraordinary man if the Toledo Bar Association or the University of Toledo college of law would establish a visiting lectureship in his name.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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