The Wrongful Convictions
The criminal justice system needs reform to avoid wrongful convictions and unprepared re-entry to society. Each year, thousands of people are convicted of crimes they do not commit. A few main causes of wrongful convictions are eyewitness misidentifications, government misconduct, and bad lawyering. In many cases, those exonerated of the crimes they did not commit no longer have the proper resources to re-enter society successfully.
In one case example involving eyewitness misidentification, a man named Walter served over twenty five years for a rape and robbery he did not commit. The prosecution's case against him stemmed from a seriously flawed eyewitness identification procedure that led to misidentification. A pregnant woman was raped and robbed in her home, and about a week later she was shown several hundred photos of black men matching her description of the perpetrator: 15 to 18 years old, approximately 5'10", no facial hair, with a thin to medium build and braids with unusual poofs of hair. After she had selected photos of seven men, the officer administering the lineup made the decision that the next person selected would be brought in for an in-person lineup. That person happened to be Walter. The composition of the live lineup was so unbalanced that the victim could hardly have chosen anyone other than Walter. None of the other lineup fillers matched the description of the perpetrator, all were either too tall, too short, or had significant facial hair. The victim selected Walter saying "I believe that it is #2", which was Walter's position. Questioned at trial about the certainty of her identification, she said "I believe like I believe there is a God." At trial, the jury was led to believe that the victim selected only Walter's photo from hundreds of photos, and that this identification was then confidentially confirmed in the live lineup. Walter was wrongfully convicted in November 1982. In 2003, the officer who administered the lineup submitted an affidavit detailing her lack of confidence in the lineup procedure and its outcome. Because of this and other crucial evidence not revealed at trial, Walter was exonerated on May 20, 2008 (Innocence, n.d.). Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than seventy five percent of convictions overturned through DNA testing. While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, thirty years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable (Innocence, n.d.). Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. Instead, witness memory is like any other evidence at a crime scene; it must be preserved carefully and retrieved methodically, or it can be contaminated (Northwestern, n.d.).
In one case example involving government misconduct, a man named Anthony was convicted of the robbery, rape and murder of an elderly woman of Philadelphia in 1991. He was convicted based on the testimony of eyewitnesses who may have been involved in the crime (the stolen items were found in their home) and a supposed confession that he said police coerced him to sign. Several key pieces of evidence from the crime scene had not been subjected to DNA testing; they include multiple semen stains, blood stains and evidence collected in the rape kit during the victim's autopsy. In 2002, Pennsylvania enacted a law that allows convicted people to seek DNA testing to prove their innocence. The law applies to people convicted before 1995 or cases where DNA testing was not previously conducted, and the law says courts that are weighing requests for testing should presume that the DNA testing would be exculpatory (meaning the results would favor the defendant). However, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has opposed Anthony's efforts to secure DNA testing, claiming that because Anthony supposedly confessed, he cannot seek DNA testing and last year a lower court denied testing (Mid-Atlantic, n.d.). When legislators passed the state's post-conviction DNA testing law, this was exactly the kind of case they intended to cover. Advanced DNA testing was not available before Anthony was convicted, and there are several pieces of biological evidence that could only have come from the person who committed this crime. Why the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is opposing DNA testing in this case is a mystery, but what is no mystery is the purpose and scope of the law, which plainly gives Anthony the right to secure DNA testing that could prove his innocence. Of DNA exonerations nationwide, twenty five percent involve people who falsely confessed or admitted to crimes by way of coercion. DNA exonerations have exposed official misconduct at every level and stage of a criminal investigation. This misconduct has included deliberate suggestiveness in identification procedures, the withholding of evidence from defense, the deliberate mishandling, mistreatment or destruction of evidence, the coercion of false confessions, and the use of unreliable government informants or snitches (Truth, n.d.).
In one case example involving bad lawyering, a man named Jimmy was arrested when he was eighteen and spent fifteen years in prison for the brutal rape of an eight year old girl, a crime post-conviction DNA testing proved he did not commit. Jimmy's trial attorney performed no investigation, filed no pre-trial motions, gave no opening statement, did not prepare for closing arguments, failed to file an appeal, and provided no expert to refute the fraudulent testimony of the state's hair microscopy expert. Other than the forensic testimony and the tentative identification, there was no evidence against Jimmy (Mid-Atlantic, n.d.). The resources of the justice system are often stacked against poor defendants. Matters only become worse when a person is represented by an ineffective, incompetent or overburdened defense lawyer. The failure of overworked lawyers to investigate, call witnesses or prepare for trial has led to the conviction of innocent people. When a defense lawyer does not do their job, the defendant suffers. Shrinking funding and access to resources for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys is only making the problem worse. A review of convictions overturned by DNA testing reveals a trail of sleeping, drunk, incompetent and overburdened defense attorneys, at the trial level and on appeal (Northwestern, n.d.). And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Innocent defendants are convicted or plead guilty in this country with less than adequate defense representation. In some of the worse cases, lawyers have slept in the courtroom during trial, been disbarred shortly after finishing a death penalty case, failed to investigate alibis, failed to call or consult experts on the forensic issues, and failed to show up for hearings (Truth, n.d.).
DNA testing has freed numerous innocent inmates around the country. But where does a wrongly convicted person go when released from prison without a safety net? Many exonerees are released from their cells without fanfare, apologies or anywhere to go. In some states, more services are available to parolees than to exonerees (Innocence, n.d.). During long years in prison, families and friends have disappeared. Any money in the bank before conviction has probably been spent on legal fees. Most exonerees struggle immediately to find housing and work and many bear the weight of a conviction on their record for years before they are officially cleared.
Some people are against any reform to the criminal justice system to avoid wrongful convictions and unprepared re-entry to society. These people claim any reform efforts to the current system will weaken it further. Although the current process allows innocent people to be convicted of crimes they did not commit, people claim reforms would make it difficult to achieve convictions of those who are guilty of committing crimes. People claim wrongful convictions are merely a result of honest mistakes and reforms could not reduce this, when in fact, officials take steps to ensure that a defendant is convicted despite weak evidence or even clear proof of innocence. People claim enforcement officers and prosecutors are honest and trustworthy, but criminal justice is a human endeavor and the possibility for corruption exists. Even if one officer of every thousand is dishonest, wrongful convictions will continue to occur. The cases of wrongful convictions uncovered by DNA testing are filled with evidence of fraud or misconduct by prosecutors or police departments.
Troubling questions about our criminal justice system are raised any time DNA testing shows that someone on death row is innocent, too often society rushes to judgment the moment someone is merely accused of a crime, with or without proper investigation or evidence of any involvement of the accused in the crime. This should give everyone hesitation about legislating or reaching court decisions based on societies fears or outrage. The criminal justice system makes mistakes and those mistakes can have chilling consequences. People are almost executed for crimes that DNA testing shows they did not commit, unfortunately, some never received the opportunity. Even more troubling is the reality that the kind of evidence that leads to these wrongful convictions is used in countless cases nationwide every day. DNA has changed the criminal justice system forever, but the system has not changed enough. The exonerations of innocent people have shown that our criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed (Truth, n.d.). DNA exonerations do not solve the problem, they provide scientific proof of its existence, and they highlight the need for reform.
Innocence Project Staff. (n.d.). Understanding the causes. Retrieved January 17, 2009, from http://www.innocenceproject.org
Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project Staff. (n.d.) . Causes of wrongful convictions. Retrieved January 16, 2009, from http://www.exonerate.org
Northwestern University School of Law Staff. (n.d.). Center on wrongful convictions. Retrieved January 15, 2009, from http://www.law.northwestern.edu
Truth in Justice Staff. (n.d.). The truth about wrongful convictions. Retrieved January 16, 2009, from http://www.truthinjustice.org