Wrongful Conviction in Criminal Court System

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Introduction

Wrongful conviction can be one of the most agonizing experiences that a human being can endure. It not only tortures the wrongful convictee psychologically, but also allows the person who committed the actual crime to unfairly enjoy the fruit of freedom and probably commit even more serious crimes. The ability of the court systems to dispense justice is put into question in such cases, in the process denting public confidence. In fact, critics of the death penalty put the possibility of a wrong conviction as one of their reason, rightfully so since death is irreversible. Simply put, wrongful conviction exposes failures in the justice system. This paper seeks to discuss the major causes of wrongful conviction; some specific cases of wrongful conviction and suggests how this can be prevented.

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Causes of wrongful conviction

Eyewitness misidentification

This is one of the major causes of wrongful conviction in America and is estimated to represent about 75% of cases that are often disapproved by DNA tests. No doubt eyewitnesses can at times offer useful evidence but over the years studies have shown that their role in suspect identification cannot be relied on completely. “The human mind does not work the same way as a video recorder, it also does not store information in the exact form that we view it”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) The mind is also not able to retrieved information like rewinding a tape. “Just like any evidence collected at a scene of crime, witness memory should be preserved with utmost care and retrieved in a specific method or else it can be prone to contamination”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002)

Through DNA technology scientist has proved that the frequency of eyewitness misidentifications is high. “There are two types variables that affect eyewitness identification; estimator variables and system variables”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002)

Estimator variables are those that are beyond the influence of the criminal justice system and include lighting at the crime scene and the distance between the witness and the perpetrator during the crime.

“System variables are those under the direct influence of the judiciary and include all of the ways that law enforcement agencies retrieve and record witness memory, such as lineups, photo arrays and other identification procedures”. (North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission 2002) They have direct impact on the accuracy of eye witness account.

Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science

The value of DNA evidence in proving guilt and reversing wrongful conviction cannot be underestimated. However some techniques utilized in this technology such as “hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, firearm tool mark analysis and shoe print comparisons” (North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission 2002) are unreliable and more research needs to be done on them. “Other techniques such as serology can be improperly conducted or inaccurately conveyed in trial testimony”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) Further more results can be fabricated to serve malicious purposes. It is estimated that 50% of cases that have been overturned through DNA analysis consist of unvalidated or improper forensic science.

False Confessions

This form about 25% of cases that have been overturned by DNA analysis, here “innocent defendants make incriminating statements, deliver outright false confessions or pledge guilty”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) Studies have shown that not all confessions are motivated by guilt; some are motivated by factors beyond the accused control. Causes of false confessions include “duress, coercion, intoxication, diminished capacity, mental impairment, ignorance of the law, fear of violence, the actual infliction of harm, the threat of a harsh sentence, misunderstanding the situation”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002)

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Since children are easy to mentally manipulate, confessions derived from them are unreliable, and can admit guilt just to go home. At times police use “torture or harsh interrogation tactics” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) on suspects thought to be uncooperative. Some suspects are ‘advised’ to confess so that they can get a lenient sentence or to avoid death penalty.

Ways of reducing wrongful convictions

Eyewitness Identification

Since eyewitness misidentification forms the highest percentage of wrongful convictions reversed by DNA analysis, radical changes need to be made in the process of identifying witnesses. Police investigations are slowed down by missed identifications as time is wasted chasing the wrong person while the actual culprit gets time to get away. The old methods which include live and photo lineups often carried out “without a blind administrator or proper instructions” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) cause excessive stress to both eyewitnesses as well as victims making them prone to making costly mistakes.

Blind administration provides that the police officer performing the identification parade through photos or live lineups should be blinded so that he/she is not aware of who the suspect is.

Lineup composition; the suspected culprit should not have outstanding unique characteristics for example being the only black person in a lineup full of white people. Fillers “(the non-suspects included in a lineup) should resemble the eyewitness’ description of the perpetrator”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002)

The eyewitness should be given instructions to the effect that “the suspected culprit may not be in the lineup and that police investigation do not entirely depend on the result of the identification hence investigation would still go on regardless”.(John 2004)

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The eyewitness should make a confidence statement in their own words rating the confidence they have in the identification they have made. It is made soon after he/she makes a final identification. (Saxa 2005)

The whole process of identification should be recorded, as this would protect innocent suspect from any malpractice by the person administering the lineup (usually police) and also prove to the jury that the lineup met approved standards. This tape should be available for viewing when need arises.

Forensic Oversight

Some changes need to be made on the way forensic evidence is handled and presented.

Federal Support for Research and National Standards/Enforcement

The food and drug administration regulates everything to do with food and drug, “a national forensic science agency with comparable authority to the (FDA) can scrutinize the forensic devices and assays that are both in use and in development”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) This agency should make “research; assessment of validity and reliability; and quality assurance, accreditation and certification of laboratories and practitioners” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) the focus of its mandate. The agency would have the powers to do research on all current and upcoming technique in order to establish their validity and reliability to be used to provide evidence. The agency would also certify all forensic laboratories and all the workers involved in their daily running as well as enforce the current requirements.

False Confessions and Mandatory Recording of Interrogations

There are many reasons that make someone to admit guilt falsefully, whereas we must admit that it is often hard to know why this happens DNA technology has proven that about 25% of false convictions are due to false Confessions. To reduce false confessions “the entire custodial interrogation must be recorded, this records would improve the credibility and reliability of authentic confessions at the same time protecting the rights of innocent suspects” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002). It has been observed that some aspects of the crime are often wittingly communicated to the suspect by police during interrogations recording confessions would minimize this. Recording the interrogation would also reduce disputes over the treatment of the suspects in police custody, provide confessions that are clear thereby increase people’s confidence in the judiciary.

Cases

Chris Ochoa, Texas Exoneree

In 1988 a lady was rape and murdered at a restaurant which was also her work place, the case was based on the idea that suspect was her fellow worker who had a master key. Police questioned all the ‘pizza hut restaurant’ workers and zeroed in on Chris Ochoa and his roommate Richard Dazinger. Though the latter did not work at the restaurant, they became suspects when they were seen toasting a drink with the victim and were later convicted for the crime. After spending many years in jail “it was discovered that Mr. Ochoa’s confession was coerced and that interrogators had threatened him with the death penalty” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002). Some letters written by Achim Marino which described the events during the rape were sent to the police through the district attorney office. Achim Marino “had apparently undergone a religious conversion while in prison on three other convictions, and felt obligated to confess to the Pizza Hut rape/murder”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) This claim was later backed up by DNA evidence and the two wrongful convictees were released. If the police interrogations were taped, it would have been easy to “assess the circumstances under which his confession was made.” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) Thus avoiding wrongful convictions.

Alejandro Dominguez

At the age of 16 Dominguez was suspected and later convicted for a rape he knew not about. He was first misidentified by the eyewitness, and the case compounded by flawed forensic evidence. DNA experts “testified that the semen found on the body of the victim matched the ‘suspects’ blood type”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) The testifying DNA expert did not advice the jury “that two-thirds of men in America would have matched that sample” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002).Mr. Dominguez initiated a review of the DNA evidence used in the case which later overturned his conviction, after serving four of his nine years conviction sentence. This is “one of many cases in which limited forensic science or erroneous forensic testimony has led to wrongful convictions” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002). This would have been avoided if a forensic agency had been set up to give an independent forensic opinion to the jury. The agency would also have vetted the credibility of the testifying scientist.

Calvin Willis

A girl aged 10 years was raped as she slept with three other girls. They had been left to spend the night alone when a man described as wearing ‘cowboy boots’ pounce on the oldest girl and raped her. As the police pursued their investigations they realized that all the three girls recalled the attack differently, in fact one of their report stated that the 10 year old girl did not actually see the culprit’s face. Their mother “testified at trial that neighbors had mentioned Willis’s name when discussing who might have committed the crime” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002). The ten year old girl admitted that “she was shown photos and told to pick the man without a full beard” (Scheck & Neufeld 2002). Even though she had not picked anyone the police department lied that she had picked Willis leading to a life sentence for him. He had served 22 years of his sentence when DNA evidence exonerated him in 2003.Post conviction DNA test showed that “of the material found under the victim’s fingernails revealed two sources of DNA, one male and one female, the female portion matched the DNA profile of the victim”. (Scheck & Neufeld 2002) This wrongful conviction would have been avoided in the first place by recording the events surrounding the suspect’s identification so that the possibility of police directing the victim girl to pick the man without a full beard would have been almost eliminated. The case would not have been based on a child’s identification. A forensic agency would have helped give credibility to DNA techniques used in the case.

Conclusion

This paper sought to discuss the major causes of wrongful conviction; discuss some cases of wrongful conviction and suggest how this can be prevented. It has been shown that the causes of wrongful conviction cannot be tackled in isolation since they are interrelated, for example a misidentification isolates the wrong suspect. This can be backed up by flawed forensic evidence which is used to vindicate and convict the suspect. A wrongful conviction tortures both the victim and his/her family psychologically; it wastes time that would have been used to pursue the actual suspect thereby wasting limited public resources. These cases also lower public confidence towards the judiciary thus it is only fair that attempts are made to win back this confidence by compensating the exoneree.If the changes in policies suggested in this paper are put into place cases of wrongful conviction would be reduced to the minimum if not eliminated.

Reference list

John, K. (2004).Wrongful Convictions in Kenya. Nairobi: University of Nairobi U.P

North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission. (2003).Innocence Project. Mission Statement, Objectives, and Procedures. Web.

Saxa, F. (2005).Exonerations. Kampala: Kampala U.P

Scheck, B.C. & Neufeld, P.J. (2002). Toward the Formation of Innocence Commissions In America. Judicature. 86(2). Web.

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