The National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law tracks exoneration cases in the United States. So far, the initiative has documented 2,505 cases of wrongful conviction and subsequent exoneration with a combined more than 22,094 years lost. This data is collected from publicly available data as well as partner organizations like the Innocence Project.
What is staggering about this data is the systemic nature of the wrongful convictions. All cases fall under a narrow band of jurisprudence shortcomings that, while well understood and documented, have proven difficult to root out. The result is a conveyor belt of wrongful convictions such as that of Anand Jon Alexander in California and others that are not likely to stop any time soon. In this article, we look at these systemic issues and how they taint the justice system, letting down thousands who daily throw themselves to the mercy of the court.
Official misconduct is the biggest culprit when it comes to wrongful convictions. While some actions such as perjury and withholding evidence are outright illegal, a lot of what rouge prosecutors (and investigators) do falls in a moral and a legal gray area. Take snitches, for example. Typically, a snitch is an individual already in jail who offers to act as an informant. The problem with this arrangement is that snitches are often compensated for their testimonies, offering a huge incentive to provide information regardless of accuracy.
Another area of official misconduct is when a prosecutor makes up their mind to get a conviction at any cost. In such a case, prosecutors contravened judicial conventions that prevent them from using such tools to influence a case. However, by using these morally reprehensible tactics, prosecutors in the case manager to put innocent individuals in jail for extended periods.
Bad lawyering is rampant in the corridors of justice, especially in cases where state prosecutors or defense are called upon to represent a case. Owing to a cocktail of reasons including huge workloads, professional ambition, and in many cases, laziness, cases do not get the amount of attention they require. The Innocence Project identifies a lack of competent legal representation as a significant factor in wrongful convictions. Said differently, the justice system is stacked against the poor who cannot afford private representation.
To cite an example, in the Anand Jon Alexander case, lawyers representing the defendant had every opportunity to protest the use of race, religion, and national origin by the prosecution. However, through laxity and a sense of apathy, such protests were not forthcoming. As such, the case lost its objectivity as it ended up trying the defendant’s inclinations as opposed to trying the facts of the case.
In an indicting article, the New York Times boldly mentioned that the leading cause of wrongful convictions is experts overstating forensic evidence. The article identifies several cases of wrongful convictions based on expert testimonies that had no scientific backing. The problem lies in the judicial system’s way of handling expert testimonies. While the threshold to be admitted as an expert is high, experts can say pretty much anything and dress it up as facts once they take the stand.
For instance, experts have long used hair comparison as a way of proving guilt. With this expert testimony, hundreds have been convicted for crimes they may not have committed. Only recently has it been established that experts really cannot tell one hair from another with absolute certainty. However, while the scientific community is clear on this, courts have not come out clearly on whether such “approximation” evidence can or cannot be admitted as evidence.
Finally, flawed science is behind some of the most egregious wrongful convictions documented. While expert witnesses rely on an imperfect science, forensic labs and investigators also rely on the same information. The result is a systematic error that wrongfully convicts hundreds each year. For instance, before DNA sequencing became reliable, many cases were tried purely on witness accounts and circumstantial evidence.
Today, while DNA has come a long way, it is still not the silver bullet prosecutors paint it to be.
In a famous case involving the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York, the office stated it had developed a DNA amplification software that could amplify minuscule (unidentifiable) shreds of DNA. While the expert testimony based on this technology served to convict the defendant, two years later, the evidence was thrown out by a higher court when it emerged that the witness had oversold the new technology.
For the cases mentioned above, including the wrongful conviction of Anand Jon Alexander, the hurdles outlined may be the only barriers standing in the way of justice. Although systemic and extremely pervasive, there is still hope that through judicial reforms, these hurdles can be lowered, and the number of wrongful convictions significantly reduced.