A Cooperative Model for Preventing WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS

Article excerpt

The AJS conference on preventing the conviction of innocent persons brought together diverse actors in the criminal justice system who are now collaborating to prevent such wrongful convictions in the future.

Editor's note: This article is the first of a two-part series discussing AJS's initiatives to reduce wrongful convictions in the United States. It recaps the January 2003 AJS conference, Preventing the Conviction of Innocent Persons, and describes the influence of that conference on the participating jurisdictions during the past year. The conference, made possible by funding from the Open Society Institute, was designed to take full advantage of the cooperative model, bringing together judges, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys, victim lights advocates, and legislators as members of jurisdictional teams.

The second article will focus in more depth on policy changes resulting from the conference as well as on two additional major efforts by AJS to reduce wrongful convictions. These two efforts include fostering a university-based initiative to conduct multidisciplinary research on the truth-seeking process of the criminal justice system, and on linking AJS's long-standing commitment to juries, judicial independence, and judicial funding to the wrongful conviction problem.

The September-October 2002 issue of Judicature was devoted to examining wrongful convictions of the innocent. The issue included articles dealing with the extent of the problem and potential solutions. It also served to announce the American Judicature Society's commitment to facilitate new and creative ways to prevent wrongful convictions.

The centerpiece of AJS's commitment was the Preventing the Conviction of Innocent Persons Conference held in January of 2003 that brought together teams from jurisdictions around the United States to consider the causes of and potential solutions to wrongful convictions. The essence of the approach taken at the conference was to step outside and above the confines of the American adversary system and explore a cooperative approach to preventing wrongful convictions. This article provides an overview of the cooperative model as developed by AJS and summarizes how the model has been working across the country in the year since the conference.

The cooperative model

Wrongful convictions are failures of the American adversary system of criminal justice. Former Attorney General Janet Reno, who gave the keynote address at the conference (see page 163 of this issue for an edited version), articulated the heart of a cooperative approach to preventing wrongful convictions-bring system participants together in the pursuit of truth. While the adversary model is motivated by the goal of victory, the cooperative model is premised on the belief that substantial and productive reform to address the wrongful conviction problem must be motivated by all participants setting aside the goal of victory for the moment and asking what steps can be taken to ensure that the system achieves truth.

The conference was an operationalization of this approach. Teams from 11 jurisdictions around the county gathered to discuss how to address the problem. The unique character of the conference, however, was not the geographic diversity of the teams; rather, it was the diversity within the teams. Teams were composed of police officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, victims' rights advocates, forensic and crime lab investigators, and legislators. Each team was designed to explore reform in a cooperative fashion, setting aside the traditional barriers imposed by the adversarial process.

The teams, along with other invited experts, first discussed the scope and causes of wrongful convictions and possible solutions. Each jurisdiction then met in individual team meetings to develop a cooperative strategic plan for steps that could be taken in their jurisdiction to prevent wrongful convictions. …