Lessons from Wrongful Convictions

Article excerpt

Lessons from wrongful convictions The Innocence Commission: Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Restoring the Criminal justice System, by Jon B. Gould. New York University Press. 2007. xiii, 335 pages. $39.00.

by Michael L. Radelet

Between 1972 and the end of 2007, more than ten dozen inmates sent to America's death rows were released because of probable innocence. Fifteen of them, and nearly 200 others convicted of non-capital offenses, had been exonerated because of rock-solid DNA evidence. Northwestern University's Center of Wrongful Convictions has identified hundreds of additional cases over the past two centuries in which innocent defendants were convicted of serious crimes in American jurisdictions. Unlike in the years before 1990, erroneous convictions are problems that most people (and even a few politicians) are no longer denying.

These vindicated defendants typically spend a decade or more in prison before exoneration and usually receive no apologies, much less compensation, once they are released. Furthermore, they almost always owe their freedom to Lady Luck, seemingly acting at random, who intervenes to uncover a previously silent witness, a suppressed piece of exculpatory evidence, or a confession by the real culprit. The exonerated inmate is kicked out of his cell and sent on his way and, witii rare exceptions, the actors in the criminal justice system responsible for the blunder continue on with their careers as if nothing has happened.

Can any lessons be learned from these cases, hopefully lessons that will lower the chances of similar errors occurring in the future? Jon B. Gould, a lawyer and professor in the Department of Administration of Justice at George Mason University, has produced a book that will ensure that the lessons from these wrongful convictions are available for study and, we hope, remembered and used to enact needed reforms.

Between 2003 and 2005, Gould served as the Chair of the "Innocence Commission for Virginia" (ICVA), an organization "created to investigate the causes of factual exonerations and to recommend measures to prevent such errors in the future" (p. 5). The Commission has its roots in a symposium issue of Judicature (September-October 2002) on "Wrongful Convictions of the Innocent." In that issue, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld proposed the establishment of state-sponsored innocence commissions to learn what could be learned from the known miscarriages. From that challenge emerged the ICVA, although it was left to private law firms, not the state, to come forward witii the halfmillion dollars in pro-bono services to get the job done.

Gould begins by reviewing the history of research on wrongful convictions, particularly those studies done in the past 20 years. Those early researchers were often criticized for claiming that wrongful convictions were a major or modern problem, but the advent of DNA testing in the 1990s exonerated not only prisoners, but the researchers as well.

Next, we are given the history of how ICVA emerged, first from work done by students in one of Gould's undergraduate classes, and then from organized efforts by six lawyers and academics in 2003 who joined together to form the commission. "We had decided to investigate known cases of wrongful conviction in Virginia, identify common problems from those cases that had led to the mistaken convictions, and then make recommendations based on additional research to address these deficiencies" (p. 60). Their investigation focused on 11 cases in which defendants had been convicted of serious felonies in Virginia since 1980, all of which resulted in "official" exonerations. The commission also surveyed law enforcement and prosecutors' offices throughout the Commonwealth to learn more about their procedures for conducting custodial interrogations and eyewitness identifications.

One-quarter of the book is devoted to a description of the 11 cases. Included is a discussion of the facts of the crimes, how the innocent defendant was convicted, and how he was exonerated. …