This week we have an interesting topic from Linda, our defense attorney. I know little about the issue of wrongful criminal convictions. Like everybody else, I read about them on occasion. But, only the really egregious ones make the national news, like the recent case of a man freed after serving 34 years for a rape/murder he did not commit.
Fortunately for us (and for at least a few of the falsely imprisoned), a number of organizations are dedicated to exonerating such people, notably The Innocence Project and Wrongfulconvictions.org. Their heartbreaking cases, or even a quick Googling of the topic, suggests the scale of this problem could be larger than most people imagine. It’s not just murders and rapes and pre-DNA convictions. Wrongful convictions may be fairly common for lesser crimes, like assaults or burglaries. These miscarriages of justice have many causes, including:
- Bad evidence: Shaky eyewitnesses, false confessions, and bad forensic science;
- Police and prosecutorial misconduct: Some accidental, good-faith mistakes; some deliberate and malicious;
- Incompetent defenses: Bad defense attorneys and underfunded and overworked public defender systems.
And those are just before the wrongful convictions. After a person goes down for a crime, the obstacles to getting his/her case reexamined are enormous. The burden of proof essentially transfers onto the convicted and it’s a large burden (I think). As I’ll discuss in my brief opening, one reason it’s so hard is that being innocent is no excuse. I’m serious. Generally under the law, a convicted criminal cannot be exonerated unless he/she can demonstrate (from prison, often!) that the process under which they were condemned violated their due process rights. If they got a “fair” trial but a wrong outcome, too bad. Plus, 95% of criminals plead guilty in a plea bargain. So, there is no trial at all to question, just the actions of the police and prosecutors, who, as we’ve all seen with recent killings of unarmed citizens, almost always get the benefit of any doubt..
Only a few links this week – Some broad overviews of the problem, plus a little bit on causes and ways to improve the system. My big question on this topic is the last one, below: What does this problem say about our legal system as a whole? Are wrongful convictions just the tragic but infrequent and inevitable “false positives” generated by a gigantic criminal justice system in a very high-crime country? Or, are they yet another manifestation of a rotten criminal justice system, intrinsically connected to mass incarceration, police abuse, etc.?
Hey, not every problem has to be connected to much bigger and long-festering systemic problems. But, where there is the former, there is usually the latter.
Discussion Questions –
- Frequency. What do we know about the problem of wrongful criminal conviction? How many are we sure have happened versus estimate? Is the problem a large or small part of American justice?
- Who/When: Who gets wrongfully convicted – Which types of crimes and/or defendants and/or victims and/or locales?
- Causes. Why does this happen? Is it individual errors or systemic problems?
- Solutions. What remedies have been suggested? Which ones have been implemented and by whom? Why/Why not? Results?
- Disease or symptom? What does this problem say about our criminal justice system? Tip of the iceberg of injustice? Small, isolated problem?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Overview short. Recommended
- Overview, longer and better. Recommended.
- More on the 6 major causes of wrongful convictions, from the Innocence Project. Another study found 10 causes.
- One big cause, IMO = Prosecutors have too much power! Recommended. More on this from both sides’ POV.
Next Week: Is the U.S. financial sector finally tamed?