Wrongful Convictions: What we have learned from Innocence Projects

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In the twenty one years since the Innocence Project was founded in New York, much has been written about the heartbreaking cases of citizens languishing in prison after being wrongfully convicted. In most cases, the loss of a person’s liberty could have been avoided. After two decades of careful analysis, the cause of wrongful convictions have been, for the most part, isolated and solutions have been identified. By far the most common cause of wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification. The Innocence Project reports that misidentification played a role in 75% of the DNA exonerations nationwide. 75%! Studies show that jurors give great weight to eyewitness identification, despite conclusive and comprehensive research that establishes eyewitness identification as unreliable. The tragedy of these wrongful convictions, together with the exhaustive research on the topic, has led to proposed reforms in the manner in which identifications take place. Several states have adopted these reforms, and many more are embracing the reforms. The Michigan State Bar Eyewitness Identification Task Force has been meeting and is about to release recommendations on procedures that will greatly reduce the incidence of wrongful identification. Another cause of wrongful conviction is the phenomenon of false confessions. As counterintuitive as it may seem, many suspects yield to outside influences and duress and admit to crimes they did not commit. 25% of the DNA exonerations reported by the Innocence Project involved false confessions or admissions that led to convictions. Jurors readily accept “confessions” finding it difficult to believe that an innocent person would confess. The frequency with which this happens is alarming. Many states, New York being the most recent, have adopted laws that require that the entire interview between the police and a suspect be recorded so that the manner and method of the interrogation is readily available for scrutiny. Michigan passed a law that touched on the recording of interrogations, but fell far short of adopting procedures recommended by the experts. It remains to be seen whether the Michigan procedure will be updated to comport with modern protocols. The second greatest contributor to wrongful convictions is unreliable or improper forensic science. Certain types of forensic testing, such as bite mark comparisons has never be subjected to rigorous testing and by its very nature is unreliable. Some wrongful convictions involve unscrupulous lab technicians fabricating test results. Others involve deliberate or negligent disregard of established standards. Not long ago, a Michigan crime lab supervisor was discovered to have had fudged a competency exam that was required. Some cases involve sloppy technique that results in sample contamination. These revelations have led to a closer examination of the science underlying the techniques used as well stricter oversight of laboratories and their personnel. Next time: Other causes of wrongful conviction.