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The Unknown Innocents

In 1921, the United States, following the newly-established traditions of the United Kingdom and France, interred the remains of an unknown American soldier from World War I. After World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the tradition continued with the internment of the remains of unknown soldiers from each conflict. (The Unknown of Vietnam was later identified via DNA.)

In 2009, Arlington marked the burial of another Unknown. This time, the error was caused not by the ravages of war, but by human error.

Each of these soldiers died fighting for the United States and its particular form of freedom, enshrined in the Constitution of the United States, a document almost nobody (Update 9/26/2016: link broken) reads anymore.

(That nobody reads it has nothing to do with this warning.)

Even the current House Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives is confused about what it says.

A comment posted to a recent blog article at Simple Justice got me thinking about how our failure to understand our Constitution has created a new group of Unknowns. Windypundit wrote:

I worry that that there’s got to be a long tail to this problem. If there are this many innocent people convicted in capital cases — which are relatively rare, usually defended with considerable resources, and under a lot of scrutiny — then there must be far more people wrongfully convicted of lesser crimes. There must be a lot of guys doing time for crimes they didn’t commit — 90 days, a year, five years — because it just made sense to deal, because not enough of the right people cared. I realize that death is different, but I’ll bet that in terms of total years of life lost to wrongful conviction, there’s at least an order of magnitude more tragedy at the low end.

The comment struck a chord with me because just yesterday I wrote about the ways in which our abandonment of long-established principles in favor of the anguished proposals of crime victims had created a situation where innocent people sometimes feel compelled to take a “deal” rather than risk long-term incarceration for a crime they did not commit.

I, too, have wondered about the growing number of exonerations. I’ve written about the untold numbers, running into the thousands, of Innocents Lost. I have worried, as Scott does, about the possibility that as the number of exonerations grows, it will become common-place. “Ho-hum, we just discovered that another innocent man spent decades of his life in prison.” Or died there. Or was killed by the State there.

So far as I know, we almost always identify the Unknown Innocent by DNA — the same science that identified the Vietnam Unknown as Air Force Pilot Michael Joseph Blassie, allowing him to be returned to his family.

But how many Unknowns will never return to their families because DNA was not available, or has been lost (even if only for just over a decade), or just hasn’t been tested, in their cases? How many innocent people died or suffered the death penalty because DNA did not exist?

For years now, a debate has raged over whether to repair or replace The Tomb of the Unknowns. There are those who believe the cracks which have developed over the years in what is called “the most important war memorial in America” can be fixed.

As the cracks worsen, cemetery officials say, the threat of a degraded monument will detract from the dignity and respect afforded to those buried at what many consider the nation’s most sacred site. (Mike Mount, “Tomb of the Unknowns caught in battle” (August 27, 2008) CNN.)

The monument stands guard over the graves of men who died defending a Constitution which has long since also begun to crack.

The cracks in the Constitution represent a disaster of far greater proportion than the loss of a monument. For the Constitution guards not the graves of American citizens, but our lives. Our liberty. Our freedom. It is not a monument delineating a grave, but a monumental document that delineates the boundaries between the power of the government and the rights of the living. The Tomb of the Unknowns may crack and fall upon them, but the Innocents fall through the cracks in the Constitution at an ever-increasing rate.

We cannot replace our Constitution. The forces that brought it into being are probably never to be seen again. We cannot start over. The men who wrote it, like the men and women who have died for it in the 221 years since it was ratified and the government it instituted began operating, are gone. If we are to keep our Constitution, it is up to us.

If we are to save it, to honor it, we must read it. We must get to know it (EDIT 12/2015: link broken).

If each of us who step into a courtroom — judges, lawyers, and jurors — will do our part, we can repair the cracks in our Constitution, ensure our unknown soldiers have not died in vain and reduce the number of unknown innocents sacrificing their lives in our prisons. For these unknowns — the Unknown Innocents — did not end up where they are because of the ravages of war, but because of human error. And our failure to honor the values enshrined in our Constitution.

And that detracts from the dignity and respect that should be afforded us as a People.