In our series “Distorted Fates”, Hetq has looked at the cases of eleven of the 104 prisoners serving life sentences in Armenia today by searching the court archives.
We looked at the cases of those originally sentenced to death, to those accused of committing crimes while serving in the military, and to individuals who were convicted at a young age but proclaim their innocence.
We also produced a film on the topic entitled “Listen to Our Voices”.
In our research, we came across the following general observations””
1- At the end of the sentences is written “Destroy physical evidence”. Technological advances have made such destruction of physical evidence practically impossible and DNA testing increases the likelihood that many cases will be reopened. The Innocence Armenian Project NGO has sent letters to some fifty correctional facilities around the world and the answer has been the same – physical evidence is needed. Even though a new clause has been added to a draft regarding the Judicial Code in Armenia (at our suggestion), that physical evidence in cases of serious crimes against a person is not subject to destruction, the practice continues in Armenia. In contrast, ever since the 1990s, DNA testing has reopened cases long since closed in the USA and other countries and the guilty have been pronounced innocent and freed.
2- Soldiers who have witnessed incidents while serving in the military have been held for a long time, up to 40 days, by the military police. There is much testimony as to the beatings and violence that occurs during the preliminary investigation, but they have not received any legal appraisal. Then too, there are cases when the accused have allegedly confessed to various crimes during the preliminary investigation only to recant such confessions during the trial, testifying that they were physically coerced into doing so.
3- In several cases involving the military, the clothes of soldiers who have been killed have disappeared.
4- Criminal case materials are hand-written and not digitalized. Thus, they are often illegible. One has to be a handwriting expert to make heads of tales of such material. Back in the day, trial proceedings were never voice recorded. A court stenographer would merely transcribe them.
5- In criminal cases, the bulk of testimony is that of witnesses, suspects, and then the accused. But for the last two centuries, scientific centers in the developed world have questioned the credibility of eyewitness testimony, arguing that nothing can substitute for scientific investigation to identify the guilty when it comes to criminal science. In the past few years in the USA and Europe, with the advent of new technological advancements, particularly DNA testing, of the 318 cases reopened it has been found that in 229 (72%) a person received a death sentence or a lengthy prison stay based on faulty testimony. On the contrary, in only 90 cases (39%) were the truly guilty pointed out by eyewitnesses. In cases where the wrong person has been found guilty, the true culprits have committed 98 crimes while walking free.
6- In the cases Hetq studied only a few involve such scientific bases. There are cases where only a forensic examination has taken place in the absence of a comprehensive one. Photos are also scarce as well as a thorough examination of the crime scene. There are cases were the crime scene has been depicted by the investigator drawing a picture. Today, however, criminal science agencies can use 3D imaging to even reconstruct the mechanics of various crimes.
7- The formal aspect of criminal case materials reminds one of the Soviet social system. Thus, court sentences were pronounced not in the name of the Republic of Armenia but rather (as in the case of a 1995 trial), in the name of the Armenian Socialist Republic. In several cases the courts have not erased the old Soviet headings from the stationery used to publish court verdicts.
P.S. – Due to the revelations of the Distorted Fates series, there has been some progress registered in two cases and government agencies have responded to our findings. We will cover these developments in our next article.