Back in the days of colonies, before there was a United States Constitution or a Bill of Rights, before we declared our independence based on the self-evident truth that all people are created equal, a tragedy played out in colonial Massachusetts in 1692. More than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. In colonial Massachusetts, the bare accusation that someone (most likely a woman) was a witch, was so persuasive that it was unimaginable to the colonists that the accused witches could actually be innocent.
Colonial Governor Phipps, following his own wife being questioned, eventually pardoned all who were in prison on witchcraft charges. But by then, the damage had been done: 19 had been hanged on Gallows Hill, a 71-year-old man had been pressed to death with heavy stones, several people had died in jail and nearly 200 people, overall, had been accused. Years later the colony admitted the trials had been a mistake and compensated the families of the convicted. Since then, the story of the trials has become synonymous with paranoia and injustice.
So what do the Salem Witch Trials have to do with Alaska today? Senate Bill 108 is sitting on Gov. Parnell's desk. Taylor Winston, from the Office of Victim's Rights, has urged the governor to veto the bill (Compass, April . According to Ms. Winston, victims and communities will suffer if the bill becomes law. She alleges that the state government is attempting to "rewrite history to the public's detriment." Her assertions are sadly based on her obvious belief that the cases that would become confidential under SB 108 all belong to guilty people. After all, how could victims be at risk unless SB 108 protects guilty people who have been released based on some ridiculous legal technicality or other miscarriage of justice? Just like those colonists in Massachusetts, Ms. Winston find it unimaginable that there are actually people who are completely innocent who have protected privacy and liberty interests in preventing false accusations from remaining available for public viewing. Her viewpoint aptly demonstrates precisely why SB 108 is so necessary.
Most Alaskans understand the "presumption of innocence" that the bill is based on. It means that just because someone is publicly accused of something, we don't assume they are guilty unless there is a conviction. Then why is SB 108 important? After all, how many wrongly accused Alaskans could there be? According to Sen. Fred Dyson, one of the bill's bipartisan co-sponsors, Alaska's Courtview has the most complete access to court records of any state in the nation. In most states, public record systems are limited to cities or counties, not the entire state.
Since the inception of Courtview in 2004, there have been more than 60,000 cases statewide that were outright dismissed. There have been more than 60,000 times where there wasn't even enough evidence to have a trial or, in other words, more than 60,000 bare unprovable accusations.
This doesn't include the numerous acquittals.
Every day potential future-employers, landlords and college admission committees peruse Courtview with unrestricted access to these bare accusations. Even though Courtview displays a prominent warning, wrongly accused Alaskans are denied employment, housing and education possibilities on a daily basis. Alaskans like James Mooney, who was wrongly accused of sexual assault in 2009 by his former fiancé. He has been fired, struggled to find employment and repeatedly been forced to explain that Courtview entry, despite his acquittal by a jury. I was one of his trial attorneys. His jurors did not believe the alleged "victim." Even though his jurors have spoken, James continues to effectively be punished for a crime he did not commit, every day that he can't find employment. James bravely and tearfully talked about his difficulties in his testimony in support of this bill.
SB 108 is a long overdue solution to the unfair disadvantage faced by thousands of Alaskans who have never been convicted of anything. Join me in urging the governor to sign this much-needed legislative reform. Let him know that Alaskans aren't interested in another witch hunt.
KeriAnn Brady is an Anchorage attorney, former Anchorage district attorney and former acting director of the Office of Victim's Rights.
By KERIANN BRADY