The Innocence Commission: Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Restoring the Criminal Justice System

By Jon B. Gould | Go to book overview

4
An Unmet Obligation

It is difficult to confront the deficiencies of the criminal justice process that can send innocent people to prison or allow the guilty to roam free without feeling compelled to prevent future errors from occurring. Whether we identify with the innocent suspect, who is convicted and left to serve time for a crime he did not commit; the helpless victim, who is attacked by a criminal who should have been locked up; the police officer or prosecutor, who errantly is convinced of a case he later comes to doubt; or the taxpayer, who must pay for the costs of convicting the innocent, it is both good public policy and common human decency to wish to eliminate wrongful convictions.

As the last chapter argued, however, it is virtually impossible to eradicate erroneous convictions, for these cases share many features with others in which errors are caught or offset by other convincing, exculpatory evidence. But it is possible to reduce the rate by which errors occur in the criminal justice system or the likelihood that questionable evidence will find its way into a criminal prosecution. In doing so, the justice system not only will further protect the civil liberties of suspects, but it also will bring the latest and best practices to justice professionals.

Everyone has an interest in adopting the most advanced practices to investigate and prosecute cases, and indeed a number of justice officials have taken the lead in investigating wrongful convictions and responding to their causes. As Samuel Walker noted in his book A Critical His tory of Police Reform, policing in the twentieth century embraced a new model of professionalism in which officers saw themselves not simply as crime fighters but also as upholders of the law. Prosecutors, too, are held to the professional and ethical canons of law, which consider attorneys to be officers of the court rather than mere pugilists seeking to win their cases. The impressive list of justice officials who have been involved in the investigation, consideration, and reversal of erroneous convictions, therefore, should not be surprising: Thomas Sullivan, a for-

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