To most people, largely those who have never been under its supervision, the Criminal Justice System in America is about catching the guilty and punishing them; removing them from society. From this perspective, justice equals a conviction, and perhaps a sufficiently severe sentence. Constitutional guarantees like the right to an attorney, the protection against forced self-incrimination, or provisions for the humane treatment of suspects are roadblocks to justice; merely tolerated in a civilized era. To society at large, the justice system is effective. Suspects are almost as good as convicts, confessions obvious signs of guilt, and eyewitness identifications nearly the word of god. “Getting off on a technicality,” is the buzz phrase the lay observer caustically tosses at anyone the system exonerates despite even a modicum of evidence.
To individuals like Sylvester Smith, convicted for the molestation of two little girls he never touched, the justice system has a darker side. Smith served 20 years for a crime he was later conclusively proven not to have committed while the real offender ran free, eventually committing a murder which would have been prevented had the system not misidentified Smith as the primary suspect in the molestation case. Few people, however, stop to fully consider this other side of the system, to understand the reason behind the protections afforded to criminal suspects by the law, or to appreciate their necessity.
A system in jeopardy
Unfortunately, statistics paint a rather grim picture of the efficacy of our criminal justice system and stories like Smith’s are far too common. While a large portion of offenders are indeed caught and convicted, grave injustices abound. Despite the hard work of a great many astute detectives, conscientious prosecutors, diligent defense attorneys and dedicated judges a shockingly high number of completely innocent individuals are caught and ground to pieces in the wheels of justice; sometimes in clear violation of state and federal civil liberties. While exact numbers of wrongful convictions are hard to gauge, a recently released report shows that more than 2000 felony convictions have been overturned as unfounded since 1989, over half due directly to police scandal. The average wrongful prison sentence: 13 years.
Faced with this harsh reality, some activists are pushing for much needed reforms. At the front of the pack is the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to utilizing DNA evidence to overturn the convictions of innocent suspects. Among the several issues identified by the innocence project as most commonly leading to a wrongful conviction, erroneous eyewitness identification, false confessions, and faulty scientific evidence are the worst offenders.
According to Innocence Project statistics, 73% of defendants exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing were put behind bars due in part to mistaken eyewitness identification. Despite the fact that research consistently demonstrates the inherent unreliability of such identification (in fact, eyewitness identification has been shown to be one of the least reliable pieces of evidence in a criminal trial), most jurisdictions continue to utilize the tool and juries treat such identifications as nearly infallible in practice. There are, however, ways in which eyewitness testimony can be used without sacrificing justice for the sake of efficiency; and reforming the use, and collection, of eyewitness testimony is critical to improving the quality of our judicial apparatus.
While confessions are often considered the gold-standard of criminal evidence and few people who have not faced a harsh police investigation can imagine ever offering a false confession, a surprisingly high number of wrongful convictions nonetheless involve this particularly troublesome item of evidence. The subject of two different Constitutional provisions –the fifth and sixth amendments– and a number of widely recognized Supreme Court decisions, Miranda warnings are perhaps the best known, confessions can be problematic at best, yet once submitted to a jury they are almost always damning.
Scientific evidence can often go awry; responsible for about 50% of wrongful convictions which were later overturned by new DNA evidence. While DNA analysis or fingerprint matching, for example, have undergone rigorous scientific exploration and demonstration, individual investigative and lab practices vary dramatically throughout the country, sometimes even throughout a single state. Unless carefully managed, such scientific evidence is less than worthless and, in some cases, actually leads to disastrous results. Contaminated samples, improper transportation and handling, and lab mistakes can all lead to false positive connections which in turn can lead to wrongful convictions.
Serious problems face our nation’s criminal justice institution and the work done by the Innocence Project and other similar organizations is vital, both to the innocent convicts exonerated as a direct result of these groups’ efforts and to the population as a whole made safer by the systemic reforms for which these organizations advocate. To learn more about these serious problems and the ways in which you can help to improve our system of justice, please visit the Innocence Project directly. To see whether you or a loved one has a valid post-conviction case, contact our office.