Wrongful Conviction in the American Judicial Process: History, Scope, and Analysis
A confession is arguably the most damaging evidence that can be brought against a defendant in a court of law. Ostensibly, it seems reasonable to assume that one would only confess to a crime that he or she had actually committed. However, in the United States, false confessions may result in nearly 400 wrongful felony convictions annually (Cassell, 1998). Leo (2005) affirmed that false confessions, to include guilty pleas, were present in 25 percent of wrongful conviction cases. Notably, such confessions were disproportionately concentrated in cases of serious violent crime and capital offenses. A full two-thirds of post-conviction DNA exoneration homicide cases involved false confessions. In eight post-conviction DNA exoneration cases, false confessions resulted in conviction despite exclusionary forensic evidence presented at the trials. One is compelled to question the differences in interrogation methods utilized by investigators according to the severity of the crime. In numerous wrongful conviction cases, the defendants were mentally ill and/or juveniles. Many were interrogated for several hours and reported being threatened or physically coerced by investigators (Garrett, 2012).
Nonetheless, this pervasive contributor to wrongful convictions can be easily remedied. Most importantly, all interrogations should be recorded in their entirety to improve the reliability of confessions as evidence (Huff, 2002). Over 750 law enforcement agencies have adopted this practice voluntarily. Prosecutors and investigators often welcome such policy changes as they generally result in fewer motions to suppress and reduce claims of abuse. Provided that these recordings are reviewed by a judge prior to trial, this practice protects the innocent and aids in prosecution (Garrett, 2012).
The criminal justice system is comprised of individuals who are incentivized by their own personal responsibilities and goals which can conflict with those of other actors within the system. Consequently, post-conviction exonerations have exposed unethical behavior at every stage of the judicial process (Huff, 2002; Rattner, 1988). Accordingly, it would be disingenuous to address the wrongful conviction phenomenon whilst ignoring the prevalence of governmental misconduct. Police investigators have repeatedly been found to have coerced confessions and witness identifications, mislead jurors regarding their observations, intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence from prosecutors, and provided compensation to informants for unreliable evidence. Similarly, state prosecutors have mishandled or destroyed evidence as well as withheld it from the defense, pressured witnesses, and relied on fraudulent forensic “experts” whose opinions are based on compensation (Garrett, 2012; Gould & Leo, 2010).
This behavior, while abhorrent, is likely to continue unless legislators can overcome a fundamental problem; investigators and prosecutors are generally rewarded based upon the number of cases solved and convictions obtained. Viable quality assurance measures must be adopted in order to ensure the accuracy of investigations in identifying the guilty (Gould & Leo, 2010; Martin, 1998). Moreover, real consequences must be implemented for those who engage in misconduct (Gould, 2008). Anyone shown to have knowingly or recklessly contributed to the conviction of an innocent person should be subject to a legal public response. Potential repercussions should include the revocation of attorneys’ licenses to practice and law enforcement officials’ peace officer certifications in addition to criminal charges and/or civil suits (Huff, 2002).
Research conducted in the years since Bedau and Radelet’s watershed study has revealed the once majestic American judicial system to be as fallible as the humans who comprise it. Previously content with presumptive faith in justice and inflated clearance rates, legal professionals have acknowledged the necessity for reform within this cherished institution. Legislators and politicians have largely accepted the empirically-supported criticism and adopted policies which aim to prevent miscarriages of justice. Technology has afforded us the opportunity to identify systematic flaws and reduce the negative impact of the human errors that contribute to wrongful conviction; such as eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, and misconduct. Additional miscarriages will undoubtedly be revealed in the future as advocacy agencies continue to represent and support the innocent. Simultaneously, local and state governments, along with law enforcement agencies, should continue to embrace improved lineup, interrogation, and evidence handling procedures. This process promises to be wrought with humbling and uncomfortable revelations as more inadequacies are brought to light. Eventually, the innocent man convicted will become a rarity in the American justice system.
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