Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution, and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted (Anglais) Cassette – mars 2000
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Scheck and Neufeld have convincingly shown there are serious flaws in our judicial system which cause many people to be convicted of crimes they did not commit. They show this primarily by use of DNA testing and explain with compelling case histories how these convictions are obtained: faulty eyewitness testimony, lying snitches, coerced confessions, racism, falsified lab results, incompetent defense attorneys, and dishonest prosecutors. It doesn't help that we have a Supreme Court that seems more interested in expediting the process than in ensuring justice.
The current scandal with the Ramparts division of the LAPD is a vivid reminder of how bad matters are, even though it "only" involves lying police officers and prosecutors willing to accept "testilying".
The DNA evidence can't really be argued against. My guess is that defenders of the current system will try to ignore the work done by these two and others. We know that when finally forced to do pay attention the conviction of innocents, the morally and intellectually bankrupt argument is made that the fact of overturning the convictions is proof the system works. I predict that when DNA evidence finally does start freeing even more wrongly convicted, the argument will be that things are now cleaned up and we can safely conclude the problem to be solved. Of course, it won't have been. Only those few cases where DNA evidence is available will be cleared.
"Actual Innocence" closes with a series of suggestions for improving the system to decrease the number of innocent people convicted. They are sensible and it's hard to see how they could be argued against, except perhaps by saying it's too expensive to keep honest people out of prison. Or even alive, since we do have a death penalty in this country. Again, the likely prospect is that an attempt will be made to ignore the proposals.
The only possible improvement I can see to this book would have been a chapter dedicated to making a case for how many innocents are routinely being convicted. Careful and conservative estimates for how often this happens based on the data available might be a key piece in discussing the subject with others. The message is there if you're awake while you read the book, but can get lost in the specific miscarriages of justice described.
"Actual Innocence" is a legal term that refers to the wrongfully convicted. Being `actually innocent' is not grounds for a release from prison in the criminal justice system without a new trial (Sheppard vs. Ohio). This decision must be made in a court of law, not in some laboratory. The `Preface' tells of the beginning of the "Innocence Project" which uses DNA tests to free convicts who were innocent (p.xiv). This has "exposed a system of law that has been far too complacent about its fairness and accuracy" (p.xv). It can be due to: mistaken eyewitnesses, racism, rigged lab tests, inattentive defense lawyers, lying prosecutors. [We know how DNA evidence can be forged or fabricated, like fingerprints. There is no limit to human error.] But DNA tests only work with biological evidence, and they wonder how many were wrongfully convicted in other crimes? "Eyewitness error remains the single most important cause of wrongful convictions. If the prosecution holds back the evidence for DNA tests, a conviction prevents the right to have them done" (p.xvi). William Rehnquist agreed! Government statistics do not keep track of the number of innocent persons who are convicted (p.xvii).
Eyewitness testimony was known to be unreliable in the 19th century (Mass. vs. Borden), especially when the people are not well-known to each other. Are false confessions the obverse of misidentification? Chapter 4 explains why you should never talk to the police without your lawyer present. Police are rewarded for closing cases not leaving them open. Prosecutors are also responsible for false convictions (p.101), especially in this case (p.105). Chapter 5 discusses "scientific evidence"as it has been presented in far too many cases. How many other cases has prosecutorial perjury been passed for science (p.116)? This will continue until there are independent laboratories that are reliable. [See the book "Tainting Evidence".] Chapter 6 has examples of prosecutorial perjury. Could hairs be planted for evidence (p.151)? Page 157 tells of safeguards against false information. Chapter 7 deals with the "junk science" of hair analysis and its weaknesses (p.162). There is a need to regulate crime laboratories (p.170). Chapter 8 tells of "harmless error", deliberate misstatements used to convict suspects (pp.174-175). A prosecutor can't be sued for knowingly allowing perjured testimony (p.180)! Are Federal prosecutors exempt from ethical rules (p.181)?
Chapter 9 shows the need for capable defense lawyers. Does the low pay for indigents' lawyers in Texas result in a higher number of executions (p.189)? President Clinton and Speaker Newton Gingrich made it easier to convict the innocent (p.190)! Public defenders are overworked and underpaid (p.191). Chapter 10 tells how "Race" can result in the conviction of a man later found innocent by DNA evidence. Chapter 11 shows how a heinous crime demands a conviction. The need to cover the face of a suspect is to avoid false witnessing (p.215). Page 217 tells how an innocent comment can be twisted into a sign of guilt. One out of eight condemned to death is later freed as totally innocent (p.218)! Chapter 12 tells of the problems facing the wrongly convicted. The test for counterfeiting evidence is on pages 236-237. Sometimes people see what they believe, not the other way around (p.237). Chapter 13 has lessons from crimes. Conviction of an innocent may mask a serial murderer (p.244). If DNA tests were done right away it could eliminate suspects (p.245). [Unless a blood sample would be used to frame a suspect.] No state has an Innocence Commission to review convictions (p.246).
Appendix 1 has a short list of reforms to protect the innocent.
Erle Stanley Gardner and the "Court of Last Resort" pioneered investigations into the wrongfully convicted around 1948 (p.249). Gardner's advocacy for the use of forensic science educated generations of his readers. His books outsold the totals of his competitors. "Potboilers"? Shame on the authors! Gardner's stories warned of the dangers of invalid eyewitness identification, drawing the wrong conclusions from circumstantial evidence (guilt by inference), or prematurely accusing a suspect before all the evidence was gathered and evaluated. Some stories made the point that while ballistics can identify the gun that fired a bullet it cannot tell when it was fired (during or after the crime). "Perry Mason" advised his clients to never lie to the police, it was better to say nothing except call for a lawyer. There is a famous true crime that has the above elements. Sacco & Vanzetti were convicted of robbery and murder in spite of their alibis and the lack of guilty evidence. Most believe they were innocent and were convicted as part of the political repression of the 1920s. Or this was based on the Sir Harry Oakes murder trial in 1943 Bahamas.