Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Criminal Justice System Gone Awry

Professor Brandon L. Garrett's sobering article, "Getting guilty right," published in the Boston Globe on March 28, presents the results of his study of 250 erroneous convictions using court records and archives housed at the Innocence Project. Garrett's book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, will be published in April, and expands on the conclusions he reaches in his Globe article.

Garrett uses the example of Neil Miller, wrongly convicted of a 1989 rape, to draw attention to the shortcomings of the criminal-justice system. By the time a new DNA test was performed thanks to the work of attorneys from the Innocence Project, Miller had served almost ten years in prison for a crime he did not commit. What went wrong in Miller's case? The DNA evidence in his case was not conclusive, and the "photo arrays" shown to the victim were handled in a "suggestive way." The victim did not positively identify Miller as her attacker until she saw him in the courtroom where it "was obvious that he was the suspect in her case." What did the jury see? "A victim pointing confidently to Neil Miller in the courtroom and declaring that he had attacked her." Conviction was a foregone conclusion.

Garrett discusses the methodology of his study:

In each case, the trial record can be read like a kind of airline accident report, a set of clues that points to what sent an innocent person to jail and let the real culprit go free. To amass the first systematic record of how these false guilty verdicts were reached, I located more than 200 trial transcripts, together with plea hearings, police reports, and judicial decisions in the cases of the first 250 convicts freed by DNA tests from 1989 through early 2010. With the help of law student research assistants, I then combed through the voluminous records. The results suggest real cause for concern about the accuracy of types of evidence that our courts routinely rely upon. Time and again, certain things went wrong, starting in the early stages of a case and later shaping what happened in the courtroom: the way eyewitness testimony was elicited, the reliability of forensic evidence, the handling of interrogations, and the way the investigations themselves were conducted.

He urges the American law-enforcement system to "learn from its mistakes ... to make things better." Garrett makes specific suggestions on how police can ensure the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and avoid false confessions, some of which come after the individual endured "high-pressure interrogation tactics over many hours." Garrett urges police to record entire interrogations and cautions against reliance on forensic evidence that may "sound scientific but actually depend on subjective judgment." Until the science has been improved, "judges need to carefully scrutinize forensics in their courtrooms." He ends on a hopeful note:
The costs of these wrongful convictions are now clear, as are the benefits of adopting reforms. A decade ago, only a handful of states had relaxed the strict rules that limited convicts’ ability to reopen their cases for new DNA testing, and now all but two states have done so. A decade ago, few police departments videotaped interrogations, and now over 750 do so. It took years to exonerate these innocent people and to understand what these cases can teach us about how to make our criminal justice system more accurate. Slowly but surely in reaction to these troubling cases, we are beginning to see the stirrings of a criminal procedure revolution.

No comments: