If you’re a Founding Fathers groupie and Constitution enthusiast like myself, then you’ve probably come across this quote before, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer,” or at least some variation of it.
The quote, which was actually first expressed by the English jurist William Blackstone but is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, has been absorbed into our country’s consciousness since our inception. What it hasn’t been absorbed into is the actual structure and practices of our justice system.
As of this writing, there have been 2,270 exonerations in the United States and that number continuously grows. Of those exonerations, 163 individuals have served time on death row and 873 were wrongfully sentenced for charges involving homicide but received a lesser sentence than death. All in all, those exonerations equate to over 20,080 years lost, and other costs — including the financial costs incurred by the taxpayers, the price families pay for having a loved one wrongfully convicted, and the ongoing price those exonerated pay as they work to rebuild their lives — are incalculable.
How is this happening? There are many culprits, actually. 70 percent of post-conviction exonerations involved eyewitness misidentification testimony, and at least 40 percent of these cases involved a cross-racial identification. It is notable to point out here that African Americans are significantly more likely to be wrongfully convicted than their white peers. A good case study on this is that of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. Thompson diligently worked to memorize specific features of her rapist during her attack and felt certain Cotton was guilty. 11 years later, when DNA evidence exonerated him, she was left devastated and the two have worked to educate others on the flaws with this type of evidence ever since.
The second-leading cause is the misapplication of forensic science and it’s involved in 45 percent of wrongful convictions. This term actually encapsulates a number of things that can go wrong in a case, including the use of unreliable or invalid practices (such as the debunked bite mark evidence theory or microscopic hair analysis), misleading or incorrect testimony by forensic experts, mistakes in the lab that lead to contamination of evidence, and misconduct by forensic analysts and labs. This last one is a doozy, so prepare yourself for what you’re about to read.
Crime labs are supposed to be impartial and concerned with discovering truth. Unfortunately, the government has perverted the incentives in the system and many labs are actually paid based on their ability to assist in securing a conviction (yes, really!) — a practice that has led to analysts acting as a part of the prosecutor’s team rather than neutral evaluators of scientific evidence. This is still only part of the problem that doesn’t include the numerous flaws with the sloppy and reckless processes many labs have begun using, such as DNA typing, nor does it account for the multiple instances of analysts withholding evidence or outright lying.
Rounding up the list of leading contributors to wrongful convictions are false confessions, present in 25 percent of exonerations, and jailhouse informants, found in 19 percent of cases. Many people are under the delusion that innocent people don’t confess to crimes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who are juveniles, who have mental disabilities, or who have severe mental illness are quite susceptible to police pressure and many times fail to understand their rights. They often believe they will receive a lesser sentence if they confess.
And the presence of the jailhouse informant in nearly 20 percent of wrongful convictions should surprise no one, in fact, it is such a flawed technique it is shocking our justice system still allows it. Quite obviously, such testimony is rarely reliable and frequently given in exchange for special treatment, deals made with prosecutors, dropped charges, or to extract revenge.
Other honorable mentions that lead to wrongful convictions are inadequate representation under the law, misconduct by prosecutors (which rarely receives reprimanding), misconduct by other government officials including law enforcement and judges, and jury stacking. The Founders would roll over in their graves at this mess.
Today is the fifth annual Wrongful Conviction Day, a day the international community has chosen to “raise awareness of the causes and remedies of wrongful convictions and to recognize the tremendous personal, social, and emotional costs of wrongful convictions on innocent people and their families.” Let’s join in calling attention to this human rights issue and support those who have been wrongfully convicted, as well as those who are still wrongfully incarcerated, by committing to a justice system that functions the way our founders intended. To do this, we must insist lawmakers take action and pass reforms that protect innocent lives, enforce accountability measures, increase transparency, and ban practices that we know lead to injustice.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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