Wrongful Convictions

 
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Introduction

In the year 2002, the New York Post covered the reversal of the guilty verdict for five New York residents convicted of rape and assault in 1989 (Wieser, 2014). Statistics indicate that this case is not an anomaly but rather the part of a trend in the USA. Since 1989, nearly 2,000 convicts have been exonerated after the determination that they were wrongfully convicted (Medwed, 2017). It places the USA on the top of the list of nations with the highest number of wrongful convictions by a considerable margin. Notably, the five victims were from African American and Spanish ethnicities, which raises the question of whether their convictions were biased and based on their race (Weiser, 2014). Statistics gathered from the cases of exoneration since 1989 indicate that it is highly likely that this is the case. For instance, while African- Americans comprise only 13% of the nation’s population, more than 50% of the exonerated convicts were the blacks (Norris, Bonventre, Redlich, Acker, & Lowe, 2017). The implication of these figures is that the American criminal justice system is skewed against people of color, unjustly incarcerating and convicting them on the basis of the race. Thus, there is a need to review the policies that guide the current system with the purpose of seeking improvements.

The effects of wrongful convictions have two primary implications that are relevant to this report. On the one hand, it is the damage that is imposed upon the victims of these unjust convictions. Namely, they are subjected to punishment despite their innocence (Acker, 2013). Time spent incarcerated as well as the perception of guilt from the community may cause untold psychological, emotional, and physical damage to the victims (Giannelli & Raeder, 2006). In addition, many of these people have sought compensation for this damage and the time lost while being in prison (Weiser, 2014; Acker, 2013). Consequently, the government has incurred significant cost paying for these mistakes. On the other hand, there is the question of the fate of the actual culprit guilty of the crimes for which others have been wrongfully convicted. Thus, they stay unpunished, which negates the concept of justice (Campbell & Denov, 2016). Moreover, when such culprits are left roaming freely in society, they remain a persistent risk to the society with the possibility of repeating the same crimes. Therefore, the overall effect of wrongful convictions is that they negate the course of justice.

As established in the foregoing part of this report, the underlining factor for the exonerations that follow the proof of wrongful conviction is the race. For a community with only 13% prevalence accounting for over 50% of the murder conviction exonerations, there is a need to interrogate and address the underlying issue that may be leading to the said crime (Lofquist, 2014). It defines the primary role that this paper seeks to play. It will look into the potential causes of the racial disparities in the convictions with respect to the policies in place, primarily, with the question whether the law enforcement could be biased against communities of color. Undeniably, the police play a highly significant role in the fate of crimes and suspects since they are charged with the investigation and, effectively, determining the likely suspects based on the evidence. Therefore, the agents of justice in the latter stages of the trial, such as the prosecutors and witnesses, are reliant on the evidence presented by the police (Medwed, 2017). Only after developing a comprehensive understanding of the problem, lasting solutions can be reached, which is the ultimate goal herein.

In order to conduct the analysis outlined above, the paper is organized in sections. The first is the presentation of the pre-existing policy and the shortcomings that have provided loopholes for people to be wrongfully convicted. The next section proceeds to research alternative policies and their advantages over the existing ones, which will help alleviate the problem. It includes the presentation of illustrations of these policy options’ effectiveness. The next part is the conclusion that summarizes the primary arguments in the paper. Finally, the paper concludes by providing recommendations based on the research, presenting viable options that will help reduce the problem of wrongful convictions by addressing the fundamental causes.

Pre-Existing Policies, Policy Options, and Research

Pre-Existing Policies

The documented cases of exonerations from wrongful convictions rose significantly after 1989 (Huff, 2002). As such, it may be viewed as the benchmark year as it this point the testing of DNA evidence was introduced in the courts, causing a fundamental shift in the investigations (Medwed, 2017). In the following years, lawyers and other stakeholders interested in the possibility of wrongful convictions commenced revisiting some of the cases and reexamining the evidence (Gianelli & Raeder, 2006; Norris, et al., 2017). It gave rise to what is known today as the innocence movement. The consequent exonerations of many people exposed significant flaws in the system of justice, within which the said innocent individuals had been convicted. Surprisingly, the loopholes that introduced the way for these convictions exceed beyond DNA and without the review, it is possible that with no alternations, more people will continue to be convicted wrongfully in the future. Some of the said loopholes are reviewed below.

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One of the biggest loopholes in the USA is the overreliance on eyewitness testimonies, which is among the leading causes of wrongful convictions. According to the multiple authors, it is the leading factor in the cases that have been reversed so far (IACP, 2010; Garrett, 2011; Acker, 2013). The statistics from the Innocent Project indicated that 75% of all cases whereby DNA testing exonerated suspects post convictions, an eyewitness had contributed to the prosecution of the case, as stated by Lofquist (2014). This fact is in line with the results of a study that Huff conducted in 2002. He identified that 79% of his survey subjects attributed wrongful convictions to the witness’ error. Notably, the report by the Innocence Project also observes that 40% of such cases involved witnesses identifying people of different races from theirs (Lofquist, 2014). Empirically, it is known that such cross-racial identification is highly prone to errors and, as such, it should be relied upon with the great caution (Norris, et al., 2017). Besides, there should be policies in place to insulate the process of delivering justice from such errors as much as possible.

Similarly, the human element in the form of the false incriminating systems and confessions is an influential causative agent of wrongful convictions. 25% of the convictions from which people would later be exonerated were attributable to falsified testimonies (IACP, 2010). This problem is multifaceted with regards to its source. For instance, it could emanate from the malicious desire of an officer or any other witness consciously implicating another person in a crime (Garrett, 2011; Gianelli & Raeder, 2006). However, it could be associated with the law enforcement officers or prosecutors’ pressure on witnesses to alter or entirely fabricate testimonies. For instance, a considerable fraction of the exonerated people had confessed to the crimes for which they were exonerated. Significantly, 35% of those that confessed crimes they did not commit were either aged 18 years at most or developmentally stunted (Garrett, 2011). This section of the population is susceptible to manipulation or intimidation, suggesting that they could be easily bent to present false evidence to support cases. If justice is to be served effectively, cases must be shielded from any such influences.

The other significant element in wrongful prosecution cases is the uncontrolled use of confidential informants, also known as snitches. Usually, they transfer information concerning their fellow criminals with the promise of special treatment during their sentences for their own crimes, reduction of jail term, or entire withdrawal of the charges for the said crimes (Medwed, 2017; Gianelli & Raeder, 2006). Typically, snitches are used where their crimes seem less egregious but they have access that could help indict criminals that have committed more serious crimes. Their use is quite regular, and they had been involved in 19% of the wrongful conviction cases (Lofquist, 2014). They are usually motivated to provide information since otherwise, they are unnecessary and, therefore, may lose the promised deal (Acker, 2013). Consequently, they are inclined to corroborate the case that seems believable just to attain their target, regardless of whether it is true or not. For example, the influence of snitches and the consequent perjury was at the center of “Snitch crisis” witnessed in Los Angeles County Jain in the 1980s, wherein they had contributed to 225 felony convictions (Norris et al., 2017). It indicates the need for measures to reduce the likelihood of such deceitful testimonies.

The second most common factor in wrongful convictions is the reliance on corruptible forensic science practices, which is central to over 50% of the wrongful conviction exonerations (Lofquist, 2014). In many cases, this science is auxiliary to other underlying problems. For instance, many police officers are overenthusiastic in their pursuit of certain leads (IACP, 2010). It has been empirically proven that there is an inverse correlation between the time taken for the investigation and the likelihood of arresting the actual culprit (Acker, 2013). As such, the police usually desire to close cases as quickly as possible. If such officers are ethically corrupted, they may seek to compromise the forensic evidence in order to produce the results on their behalf (Campbell & Denov, 2016). Similarly, the forensic experts may be corrupt or incompetent, which leads them to produce false results based on which innocent people are convicted while the guilty party stays free.

Policy Options

The first available policy alternative addresses the eyewitness identification error, the most prevalent factor in wrongful convictions. The policy for dealing with this challenge must be anchored in facts, one of which is that the human memory is dynamic, and a registered fact, such as a face, may change as one tries to recall events as they happened (IACP, 2010). Additionally, the misidentification leading to errors is usually due to two types of factors: estimator and system class of variables (Norris, et al., 2017). The latter category includes the manner that the police retrieve and record all witness evidence. One way to improve this is by blind administration of identification line-ups, whereby the officer overseeing this process is not aware of who the suspect being sought is (Lofquist, 2014; IACP, 2010). Statistically, witnesses are 50% more likely to identify the wrong suspect in cases of the non-blind identification (Garrett & Raeder, 2006). It could be due to the police’s manner of process administration. Moreover, when suspects are presented in a concurrent manner, witnesses inevitably apply the relative judgment of the lineup (IACP, 2010). Naturally, even in the absence of the actual culprit, one suspect resembles the offender identified more than all the rest, placing him or her in jeopardy, especially in cross-race identification cases (Huff, 2002). Therefore, the procedure should be changed so that the presentation of suspects is sequential rather than concurrent. Thus, the probability of the relative judgment is reduced. In addition, there should be filler members in the lineup who look more like the perpetrator in order to lower the chance of the similar suspect being biasedly identified (IACP, 2010). A policy that requires the combination of these measures significantly reduces the probability of misidentification. Based on this fact, jurisdictions in California, Florida, and South Carolina have adopted the same measures.

There must be policies that address the processing of the forensic evidence. Errors in the forensic processes primarily result from either the incompetence or ethical deficiencies in the personnel handling it. The International Association of Chiefs of Police suggested that there should be the standard protocols guiding processing and handling the forensic evidence (2010). It should be verifiable, and there must also be sufficiently strict measures to ensure their adherence (Garrrett & Raeder, 2006). It will motivate all parties involved to follow the said procedures. In addition, it is vital to have the correct training among the parties involved, both the police and the forensic experts. It will eliminate the challenge of incompetence. Moreover, there should be the sufficient financial investment in identifying, adopting, and updating the technology being used in forensic departments. The technology was proven to be central to the processing of evidence by the incorporation of DNA information in courts, which has been responsible for the majority of the exonerations witnessed so far (Campbell & Denoy, 2016). As such, the government should adopt the new technologies as soon as possible in order to limit the inaccuracy in future.

There is a need to address the problem of perjury from both witnesses and informants. Thus, there must be policies that require the cautious use of informants in the courts. Among other practices, the prosecution should adopt the requirement to vet potential informants in order to establish their history and motives (IACP, 2010). Consequently, prosecutors must be required to reveal all information pertinent to the case of such involved persons, even in cases where such information risks disqualifying the evidence they provide (Garrett, 2011). In addition, there should be the video documentation of all the interrogation and recording of witness testimonies. It will ensure that any attempt by the prosecution or police to bias the witness in one direction by intimidation or suggestion is captured. Washington, D.C. has adopted such measures based on the findings of commissioned research therein (Lofquist, 2014). Similarly, Californian enforced policies require all informants’ testimonies to be supported by verifiable forensic evidence; otherwise, the testimony is considered biased. It eliminates 45.9% of perjured testimonies posed by incentivized and unregulated informants (Acker, 2013). There must also be appropriate punitive measures for any instances of such misconduct. In the same vein, all suspects must be accorded the best defense possible. The relevant bar associations should have in place professional and ethical codes for all their members and appropriate punitive measures for the same (Acker, 2013). Therefore, all lawyers will be motivated to construct the best defenses, which include the thorough interrogation of all evidence and procedures.

Finally, there should be the constitution of an independent body that reviews all the cases of exonerated individuals and devised recommendations on possible improvements. A review of each case individually would be likely to provide insights that are overlooked when simply studying trends and drawing inferences on that basis (IACP, 2010). Considering these recommendations, the relevant authorities must work on improving practices. Canada is an ideal example of the use of such a body (Campbell & Denoy, 2014). The effectiveness of such agency is evident in the fact that Canada currently has significantly less than half of the number of wrongful conviction cases the USA has had over the same period (Lofquist, 2014). However, independence is a key factor of consideration here since, without affiliations to any side of the case, the body would not be inclined to either disclose or conceal the failings of the prosecution.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, it is evident that wrongful convictions are a challenge that the nation must contend with. Since 1989, the country has had more than 2,000 exonerated convicts, the overwhelming majority of whom are from minority communities. It has negative implications as it negates the course of justice with unfair consequences for the wrongfully convicted in addition to the costs the state provides as the compensation for the same and dangers for the safety of the public by leaving the true perpetrators roaming free. There are multiple factors that lead to the unfortunate wrongful conviction of innocent people. The leading aspect is the incorrect eyewitness identification of the wrong person, with a prevalence rate of 75%. Others include wrong forensic evidence, poor interrogation procedures, and the incorrect use of informants. As such, any corrective measures taken must address these challenges. They include double blind witness identification, the improvement of counsel standards, the reform of the informants’ use, the forensic protocols advancement, and the composition of a body to review wrongful conviction cases, draw recommendations, and continuously oversee the implementation of the same.

Recommendations

  • A body should be composed charged with continuously reviewing cases of wrongful conviction, drawing recommendations, promoting and monitoring their implementation, .
  • The cautious preliminary review of and the subsequent reliance on the testimonies from informants, and the requirement for support by either verifiable forensic evidence or unbiased testimonies.
  • The review of interrogation procedures to include video recording, with strict punishment for oversight of the same.
  • The adoption of blind and sequential administration of eyewitness identification line-ups with filler embers that closely resemble the culprit.
  • The employment of verifiable standardized forensic evidence processing protocol with the steep punishment for the breach of the same.
  • The institution of strictly enforced professional and ethical codes among defense lawyers.
  • The use of the latest evidence handling technology with continuous periodic review and improvement.