Wrongful Conviction

By Mitchell, Jason | Judicature, March/April 2013 | Go to article overview

Wrongful Conviction


Mitchell, Jason, Judicature


Wrongful Conviction Wrongful Conviction: Law, Science, and Policy by James R. Acker and Allison D. Redlich. Carolina Academic Press, 2011. 640 pages. $55.00

A casual perusal of recent news of the day as well as the existing literature pertaining to the American criminal justice system will reveal that the subject matter addressed in Wrongful Conviction: Law, Science, and Policy, written by James R. Acker and Allison D. Redlich, has never been more relevant nor more timely. For example, as recently as May 24th, 2012, a gentleman named Brian Banks, with the aid of the California Innocence Project, was exonerated after serving 10 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. An in depth investigation revealed that the young woman lied about the entire incident.

Innocent people being incarcerated continues to be an important problem. Although the number of exonerations continues to increase, the rate at which people are being convicted of crimes far outpaces the rate of exonerations - the majority of which are for rape and murder. Importantly, a preliminary point made by Acker and Redlich is that there exists no legitimate reason to believe that wrongful convictions only occur in these two areas. Instead, Acker and Redlich demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of exonerations pertain to rape and murder because these two crimes lend themselves to definitive determinations of guilt or innocence via DNA testing. Therefore, because the certainty of DNA testing is inapplicable to the vast majority of criminal convictions. Acker and Redlich conclude that the problem of innocent people going to prison for crimes they did not commit is likely to be far greater than the current rate of exonerations would suggest.

In Wrongful Conviction Acker and Redlich essentially set out to demonstrate that the criminal justice system is fraught with potential pitfalls in which an innocent individual can become a wrongfully convicted person. Though the authors make several points and arguments in their text, they specifically highlight two key components of the criminal justice system itself: (1) there exist multiple opportunities for someone to be convicted of a crime they did not commit, and (2) once convicted, the system is concerned more with legal procedure than with actual innocence. With this as their goal, Acker and Redlich systematically set out to prove their thesis. They more than adequately achieve their goal.

Wrongful Conviction guides the reader through the entire criminal justice process beginning with arrest and proceeding to post-trial relief (this ranges between the appellate process and the possibility of clemency). Along the way, Acker and Redlich illustrate how the various individuals entrusted with safeguarding the integrity of the criminal justice system can inadvertently arrest, investigate, prosecute, and convict the wrong person. They demystify both the how and the why of such mistakes. By invoking techniques and scientific methodologies from the social sciences, Acker and Redlich illuminate concepts such as self-fulfilling prophecies, faulty eye-witness identifications, false confessions, and even systemic shortcomings. Acker and Redlich also demonstrate how these concepts, because they are not mysterious, can be anticipated and dealt with in an attempt to curtail the likelihood that innocent people will suffer.

For example, Acker and Redlich do a great job of demonstrating how the police, during the course of their investigations, may focus on one person to the exclusion of others. Because the "police often must make decisions based on incomplete, conflicting, and ambiguous information ... the police can be prone to 'tunnel vision' ..." (p. 28). The authors show how the social sciences have demonstrated that "tunnel vision" is a "compendium of common heuristics and logical fallacies to which we are all susceptible, that lead actors in the criminal justice system to focus on a suspect, select and filter the evidence that will build a case for conviction, while ignoring or suppressing evidence that points away from guilt" (p. …

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