Standards, Scrutiny Would Reduce Wrongful Convictions, Jefferson Medal Winners Say

April 15, 2009

Using the scientific method to scrutinize forensic investigative techniques would improve the criminal justice system and cut down on wrongful convictions, the recipients of the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law said Monday.

Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders of the Innocence Project, spoke about their organization's work promoting post-conviction DNA testing and minimizing wrongful convictions in the legal process.

Barry Scheck
Peter Neufeld

"The lesson to be learned from these wrongful convictions is somehow you have to take the scientific method and apply it to the investigation, adjudication and post-conviction analysis of cases where there could be multiple convictions," Scheck said.

Current forensic science procedures do not employ the scientific method nearly as often as they should, the two men argued. Neufeld cited a case in which a man was convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering his girlfriend's three-year-old daughter because an expert in forensic dentistry had matched his teeth with bite marks found on the body. After serving nine years in jail, DNA tests revealed that the man was innocent and he was exonerated.

Since then, the Innocence Project has found that in "60 percent of wrongful conviction cases [in which] forensic scientists testify for the prosecution, they provided invalid testimony — testimony that was scientifically invalid by the prevailing norms at the time," Neufeld said.

The Innocence Project urged the National Academy of Sciences to further investigate the problems of forensic science. In that study's results, the NAS reported that "with the sole exception of nuclear DNA analysis, no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have passed these [standards] consistently," Neufeld said.

Neufeld said DNA tests for about half the cases the Innocence Project takes confirm the original conviction.

"But, on the other hand, that means that in 50 percent of the cases we actually get to exonerate, which if you think about it intuitively, is an extraordinarily high number," he said.

Neufeld and his colleagues have realized that the courtroom is not the place to fix the forensic science inaccuracies. Instead, he said the organization hopes for the introduction of federal legislation in the next two months that would establish a federal regulatory body for forensic science.

"This federal regulatory agency will do for forensic science what the FDA did years ago for clinical medicine; that is, requiring enough money for basic research, required research, establish standards, [and] establish parameters for testimony in the court of law and report writing," Neufeld said. "These standards will require much more meaningful results [and] much more meaningful research, all following basic scientific principles."

Another problem the Innocence Project seeks to fix is eyewitness misidentification, which Scheck said is the most common reason behind wrongful convictions.

In one case, a man who resembled a composite sketch of a suspect in a rape case was picked up for a traffic violation and brought in for a lineup. When the victim saw a lineup and said she thought that suspect could be the man who raped her, the officer told her he could only arrest him if she were sure. She said she was, and he was charged and later convicted. DNA testing later exonerated him.

According to Scheck, the officer would not have led the victim from uncertainty to certainty had he not known who the suspect was in the lineup. This procedure, known in the scientific realm as a double-blind, is a simple reform to enact that is proven to help reduce wrongful convictions.

Another reform proven to reduce wrongful convictions without reducing correct identifications is warning the witness that the suspect may not be in the lineup.

The Innocence Project is planning to advocate for legislation to make these reforms and others mandatory as well.

False confessions are another culprit behind wrongful convictions — according to Neufeld, 16 to 18 percent of wrongful conviction cases stem from false confessions. It may seem irrational for someone to confess to a crime he or she did not commit, but Neufeld said such behavior has been documented in many social science studies.

Neufeld worked on a case in which a man had been convicted of raping two women on the basis of a positive identification from one of the women, an audio recording of the man's confession — that he later recanted — and testimony from a cellmate who said the man also confessed to him.

"I finally listened to the tape [of the confession], and I'm thinking to myself, 'Oh my God, there's no question this guy is guilty,' Neufeld said. "I mean, it was that compelling. The details, the whole thing. But sure enough, like anybody else, he has the right to a DNA test because DNA after all can trump a confession [or] an identification."

The DNA test proved the man's innocence. To combat false confessions, Neufeld suggested recording the entire interrogation process, not just the confession.

"That way, we'll know for sure if these extraordinarily unusual facts that were never made public indeed originated from the accused or if they were either overtly or innocently through leading questions fed to the suspect over the course of the interrogation," Neufeld said.

In other cases, wrongful convictions stem from lawyer error. To help minimize these types of cases, Scheck proposed an agency similar to the National Transportation Safety Board. In the same way that the NTSB asks what went wrong in a plane crash or train derailment, this agency would be charged with the internal review of cases in which lawyer or judge error leads to a wrongful conviction and would establish standards to ensure similar errors do not happen again.

One measure of the success of the Innocence Project of which Neufeld is proud is the 43 affiliated organizations across the country, including a clinic at the Law School.

"The experience that we've had over the years is when you work with law students, and the law students go with you when you finally exonerate somebody, and they go down into the prison, and they take that man or woman by the hand who was wrongly convicted and walk them into sunlight, it is a life-transforming experience," he said. "They all as a result of that experience have a unique understanding of justice, a unique understanding that they will carry with them."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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