Panel: Too Many Wrongful Convictions Point to Flawed Justice System
Research in recent years has shown that wrongful criminal convictions are more prevalent than previously thought, and stem from flaws within the justice system, according to a panel of experts at the Law School's 2009 Conference on Public Service and the Law.
Friday's panelists included author John Grisham, a member of the Innocence Project's board of directors; Texas prosecutor Craig Watkins and Marvin Anderson, the 99th person in the United States to be exonerated due to post-conviction DNA testing.
"You start off with bad police work and bad investigations," Grisham said. "What the police do often, they get a hunch. They get tunnel vision once they decide who committed the crime; they block out everything else. That leads to bad lineups, that leads to false confessions, it leads to all kinds of messed-up evidence."
The Innocence Project is a nonprofit legal clinic dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and to reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. The organization is affiliated with the Law School's recently launched Innocence Project clinic, which allows students to investigate potential wrongful convictions of people incarcerated in Virginia. Clinic professor Deirdre Enright moderated the panel.
The Innocence Project reports that there have been 232 post-conviction DNA exonerations in U.S. history.
Grisham said other wrongful convictions can be caused or exasperated by racism, overzealous prosecutors, faulty scientific data and apathetic judges.
George Kendall, senior counsel at law firm Holland & Knight, said recent research also suggests that false confessions are far more common than most would believe.
"About 20 percent of the cases of innocence involve people who not only go in an confess to something they didn't do — something terrible that they didn't do — but in some of these cases they go on for years and testify against co-defendants, and when they do interviews five or six years later in prison, they continue to insist [they committed the crime]," Kendall said. "It's a very big problem. Our current legal standards cannot begin to come to grips with this problem."
DNA exonerations show that faulty witness identifications are alarmingly common, especially in cross-racial identifications, said Paul Enzinna, a partner at Baker Botts who spearheaded the initiative to free Anderson.
Watkins, who became district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, two years ago, said he's determined to address wrongful convictions in his district. His background, he said, made him fully aware of the justice system's faults. As a young attorney just out of law school, Watkins twice applied to work as a prosecutor, and was rejected. He ended up taking a job as a public defender instead.
"For those three years I got to experience, close-up, the failures of our criminal justice system. I look back on this years later and say to myself that it was a good thing that I didn't get to be a prosecutor [then] because I would have been acclimated to the failures of the system and bought into that," Watkins said. "When you're young, you don't know any better, and they show you how to do things, you accept that, adopt that and become a part of that."
Now, Watkins is working to address the system's failures, in part by pushing for DNA testing that has identified and freed 19 inmates in his jurisdiction who were wrongfully convicted.
Young lawyers should work with integrity and look critically at the legal justice system, Watkins said. Justice, he said, is not about convicting everyone suspected of a crime.
"Seeking justice means that we convict the guilty and free the innocent," he said. "As a result of what we've done, our conviction rate is higher than it's ever been in Dallas County, our crime rate has been reduced. We have shown all those naysayers that when you do things right — when you seek justice — you will be rewarded."
Anderson, who at age 18 was wrongly convicted by a jury of robbery, forcible sodomy, abduction and two counts of rape, was exonerated in December 2001 after 15 years in prison. His conviction involved a number of the issues addressed by the panelists.
"Everything bad that can happen in a criminal case happened with me," he said. "You had poor police investigation, misidentification, racism — you had — conflict of interest."
And, panelists said, Anderson was one of the lucky individuals who was eventually freed because his case involved DNA. There are many who should not be in prison and will serve the entirety of their terms because either there is no DNA evidence to exonerate them, or because the DNA evidence was destroyed.
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