Wrongful Conviction in the American Judicial Process: History, Scope, and Analysis

By Joshua A. Jones
2012, Vol. 4 No. 08 | pg. 2/3 |

Paradoxically, clearance rates for murder in metropolitan statistical areas have declined almost perpetually with no demonstrable improvement for over half a century; a trend which is not attributable to increases in police workloads (Ousey & Lee, 2010). A plausible contributor to this decline in clearance rates is that advancements in DNA and forensic technologies have added to the weight of the State’s burden of proof in serious felony cases, as indicated by the fact that law enforcement professionals have actually cleared fewer murders and forcible rapes than when DNA databases were in their infancy (Rothstein & Talbott, 2006). Notably, post-conviction exonerations do not affect these data since an arrest is sufficient to clear a case according to the Uniform Crime Reports (U.S. Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011). Thereby, it can be ascertained that the current legal system, which is demonstrably incapable of operating with complete accuracy, has been unable to sufficiently secure convictions using scientific evidence in cases which may have otherwise resulted in miscarriages of justice.

Ostensibly, the data convey that the justice system operates with a very small margin of error. Indeed, a few hundred miscarriages do not seem to represent a major social problem when compared to a prison community equivalent to the population of Hong Kong, China (U.S. Department of State, 2011). However, this façade of precision is merely the byproduct of historic public faith in the system and resultant indifference toward convicted offenders. The decline in national clearance rates serves as evidence that jury members are no longer content to make decisions in the absence of DNA and forensic data. Indeed, scientific experimentation has affirmed that historical clearance rates were most likely the inflated and fictitious remnants of an era before technology entered the courtroom (Rothstein & Talbott, 2006). Therefore, wrongful convictions are not aberrations, but consequences of the normal operations of a flawed system (Siegel, 2005). Consequently, nearly every U.S. state has adopted a legal statute which allows access to post-conviction DNA testing (Steinback, 2007).

Wrongful Convictions from an Interactionist Perspective

Labeling theory proposes that acts are not inherently criminal. Rather, criminality is determined by the audience which labels the person and his or her acts (Leon-Guerrero, 2011, p. 347). Accordingly, deviance is largely determined by the cognitive representations harbored by observers. Prior to the advent of modern forensics, convictions weighed heavily on eyewitness testimony and other fallible factors. Jackiw, Arbuthnott, Pfeifer, Marcon, and Meissner (2008) analyzed the first 130 cases of post-conviction DNA exoneration. Therein, they affirmed that 78 percent of the original wrongful convictions had resulted wholly or in part from mistaken eyewitness identification. Accordingly, they concluded that observers’ recollection of events is often inaccurate and incomplete. Very often, these memories are formed out of an informal reasoning fallacy, the argument from ignorance, as the observers’ minds attempt to make sense of the events by simply filling in what “probably” happened in accordance with their own preconceived notions; especially concerning members of minority groups identified by caucasian witnesses and victims (Oaksford & Hahn, 2004). The cross-racial misidentification phenomenon is at least partially responsible for the trend in exonerations of minority defendants in felony cases (Aaronson, 2008).

As with many social problems, particularly those concerning the justice process, race is an omnipresent factor in wrongful conviction. Scholars have speculated that African-Americans are disproportionally targeted by the criminal justice system (Taslitz, 2006; Zalman, Larson, & Smith, 2012). For instance, nearly 90 percent of offenders executed for rape convictions since 1930 were African-American. Prosecutors are more likely to move forward with comparably weak cases against minority defendants. Consequently, non-caucasians defendants are often convicted for having killed caucasians victims based on significantly less evidence than in similar cases with caucasians defendants. As a result, six times more African-Americans have been exonerated from capital sentences than caucasians defendants; indicating that African-Americans are far more likely to be wrongfully convicted during their initial trials.

Given that African-Americans make up 13 percent of the United States’ population and one-third of its prison community, but are wrongfully convicted at such a staggering rate, labeling theory suggests that the majority of individuals involved in capital trials simply perceive minorities to be more deviant (Harmon, 2004). The findings from Chambliss’ (1973) classic “The Saints and the Roughnecks” certainly apply herein. Caucasians in this instance are more resistant to the criminal label than are minorities (Leon-Guerrero, 2011, p.347). Undoubtedly, socioeconomic status is inextricably linked to racial inequality as over one-fourth of the African-American community lives in poverty (Leon-Guerrero, 2011, p. 44; U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). As noted by Crone (2011), one consequence of this disparity is that those in higher social classes benefit from an increasing number of opportunities, such as private attorneys (p.55). Accordingly, researchers have affirmed that the use of public or private defenders plays a significant role in miscarriages of justice (Blackerby, 2003; Gould & Leo, 2010; Huff, 2004).

Identifying Causes and Proposing Solutions

Though media attention has dwindled in recent years, most criminal justice professionals are conscious of the wrongful conviction trend. Moreover, recent documentaries and television series have launched the issue into the public eye (Campbell & Denov, 2004). Policy makers have been berated with demands for improved legislation and oversight, particularly regarding capital cases, while advocacy agencies have pushed for the forensic re-examination of cases which were decided before the technology became available; which has led to a substantial backlog of defendants (Siegel, 2005). Since the fairness of our judicial system is often taken for granted, wrongful conviction may soon be subjectively perceived as a threat to our cherished legal institution without timely intervention.

Previous research has identified the root causes of wrongful conviction as well as its purpose. From where did this trend emerge? Miscarriages are the result of decades of “tough on crime” initiatives advocated by politicians in their quest to appease the masses and public trust in the equitable delivery of justice. Subsequently, courtroom actors neglected the State’s burden of proof in favor of erring on the side of caution and ultimately, though unwittingly, opened the door to misconduct (Rattner, 1988). Moreover, the disproportional treatment of minorities is evidence that the civil rights movement has not yet reached the top of the mountain; bias remains in the courtroom (Harmon, 2004; Taslitz, 2006). What function does this problem serve? Contemporary juries now come to court with high expectations regarding DNA and forensic evidence. The initial surge of post-conviction exonerations is nearing its end, though it has revealed systematic flaws in the judicial process which have been ignored for decades (Bowman, 2008).

Eyewitness misidentification has been identified as the most prevalent cause of wrongful conviction (Clark & Godfrey, 2009; Rattner, 1988). Notably, a misidentification can result in the wrongful conviction of an innocent person as well as prompt police investigators to stop looking for the real offender. Theoretical analyses into eyewitness memory and identification have mostly been conducted by social and cognitive psychologists (Leo, 2005). Nonetheless, criminal justice professionals have learned practical lessons from these data. For instance, the use of double-blind lineup procedures was first mandated by the State of New Jersey and has since been adopted by numerous, though not most, law enforcement agencies. Therein, the officer administering the lineup does not know the identity of the suspect.

Additionally, sequential photo arrays, wherein each photo is shown one time to prevent comparative analyses, have been implemented as a best practice (Garrett, 2012). Moreover, Weber and Perfect (2012) affirmed that free-report decisions made by witnesses were most accurate, especially when an explicit don’t know option was permitted, and had no negative influence on the number of correct decisions. Therefore, witnesses should be informed that the guilty party may not be present in the lineup and not required to answer definitively when presented with suspects for identification. The results, to include the witnesses’ certainty at the time of identification should be recorded. Additionally, model jury instructions should direct jurors not to rely solely on the “confidence level” of any eyewitness in the absence of more convincing evidence (Garrett, 2012). If these procedures are followed, eyewitness identifications will be much more reliable and remove ambiguity at trial. This simultaneously reduces the likelihood of wrongful conviction and improves the overall cogency of the State’s case.

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