“The intention of justice is to see that the guilty people are proven guilty, and the innocent are freed.” So Al Pacino famously said, in the classic 1979 movie, And Justice for All. Unfortunately, time and time again, the “intention of justice” has failed us, as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a society.
According to a recent report from the National Registry of Exonerations, 2016 marked the highest number of exonerations for a single year, at 166. False convictions are a very real part of the fabric of our everyday life. If you are reading this and thinking, “I don’t know what she’s talking about. False convictions don’t have an impact on my life, nor on the lives of my friends and family,” gently, I’d like to point out just because you aren’t aware of it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact you.
How Wrongful Convictions Impact All of Us
Increased Danger to Society
When the wrong person is arrested, and subsequently convicted of a crime, the right person isn’t. This means the guilty party remains amongst us in society, free to reoffend. No one wants that.
Loss for the Family Means a Loss for Society
Incarcerating the wrong person isn’t just bad “in theory.” Perhaps you don’t currently know anyone who is incarcerated. Perhaps, even if you do, you are confident they belong there (although your confidence you are right has no relationship to wheth
er or not you are actually right). Take a moment, however, and consider the very real cost to society when the system incarcerates the wrong person. This is somebody’s father, somebody’s child, somebody’s everything. Wrongful convictions result in children growing up without parents, parents missing out on the milestones of their incarcerated children, and untold lost potential. This harms us all.
Some Startling Statistics
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 2016’s exonerations included 94 cases wherein crimes hadn’t actually occurred. Separately, 74 convictions were the result of a guilty plea, rather than a verdict by jury or judge. One might reasonably wonder how these things could occur.
Cases without Crimes
Classic examples of cases without crimes include expert conclusions which are wrong, such as when a forensic pathologist declares an incorrect cause and manner of death. Another example, which has received significant coverage in recent years, is also the result of forensic “evidence,” drug testing. Preliminary drug tests performed by law enforcement in the field are notorious for producing false positives. (So much so, the state of Texas has called for confirmatory laboratory testing in all drug cases.) Imagine the “evidence” “proves” the substance was an illegal substance. Imagine further the defense attorney fails to challenge the sufficiency of the evidence. In such a case, it is small wonder juries convict without question.
When Innocent People Plead Guilty
In order to keep the wheels of justice moving, prosecutors routinely offer deals to people charged with crimes. Prosecutors offer “deals” with the intent of obtaining a guilty plea. For a person charged with a first-degree drug crime, for examp
le, a prosecutor might offer a plea to a third-degree drug crime. Why would an innocent person do this? There is certainty in plea agreements. While there may be time to serve, in many cases, the offer includes less time than one might reasonably expect if they lost at trial. Every jury trial involves risk. Innocence does not guarantee a “not guilty” verdict.
Further, particularly in a case wherein the “expert” declares a particular cause and manner of death, or forensic evidence which “proves” one thing or another, an innocent person may feel compelled to “make the best of a bad situation.” Sometimes, this means pleading to something to get out of jail and move on with their lives. Unfortunately, once someone has a felony conviction, “getting on with their lives” gets a lot harder. There are long term negative consequences to such a decision.
In every case involving forensic science, it is critical both the prosecutor and defense attorney not only read the forensic file, but understand what the contents of the file mean – and don’t mean in the context of the criminal justice system.