Many of us tend to view wrongful convictions through a model of cause and effect. We know there was a grievous error; we presume there was a cause; and we seek to uncover the trigger in order to prevent its harmful effects in the future. Noted criminologist Richard Leo has labeled this the “familiar plot” of scholarship on wrongful conviction, in which the supposedly “well-known” causes of wrongful conviction appear to necessitate a series of “obvious” policy solutions.1 It's not surprising that the research on erroneous convictions should appear that way, since most of the people who have investigated these cases are lawyers and are trained in the law's model of cause and effect.2 Law school teaches us that wrongs have causes, that causes can be prevented, and that injuries from unacceptable causes warrant recompense to the victim and punishment to the wrongdoer. Indeed, that is the very basis of both criminal and tort law.
In many ways, the ICVA followed this model as well. But a better way to understand the ICVA's conclusions—and more broadly, a better model to comprehend the nature of wrongful convictions—is not through law but science. That may seem odd to many readers. After all, wrongful convictions occur in the justice system at the hands of people sworn to enforce, uphold, and defend the law. But wrongful convictions have no simple explanation of cause and effect. To be sure, the ICVA and other earlier research and commissions have identified likely factors behind wrongful convictions, but to call these factors causes is to miss the fact that many of these forces are found in other cases that do not end in erroneous conviction. Chapter 1 described the Spangenberg Report, a research project commissioned by the American Bar Association, which found that over the years, thousands of defendants received substandard lawyering in Virginia. Were all these clients wrongly convicted because they were innocent? Probably not, even if the problems they encountered with their lawyers were similar to those found in the wrong