Posts Tagged ‘exoneration’

The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the law schools at University of Michigan and Northwestern, reported last week that in 2012, law enforcement cooperated in some way in a higher percentage of cases than in the past.  Does this mean less resistance of science by law enforcement?

The answer is that we can’t tell from this data.  But the report is worth looking at nonetheless.

Here is what the report says about law enforcement cooperation (I have removed the bullets, spacing, etc.):

In  2012 there was a dramatic increase in the number and the proportion of exonerations that prosecutors or police participated in obtaining.  Of the 63 exonerations in 2012, prosecutors or police initiated or cooperated in 34, or 54%. Over the past 24 years, prosecutors and police have cooperated in 30% of the exonerations we know about (317/1050). Last year for the first time they cooperated in a majority of exonerations, and the number of such cases is a large increase from the previous high (22 of 57 in 2008, or 39%).

This is all to the good.  But there are some aspects of the findings that counsel caution.  First, the author(s) of the report freely admit they don’t know why  this is happening.  It could have many causes.

This increase [in cooperation] may be due to a confluence of related factors: changes in state laws that facilitate post-conviction DNA testing, the emergence of Conviction Integrity Units in several large prosecutorial offices, and, perhaps, a change in how law enforcement officers view the possibility of false convictions at trial.

And just to be clear, it’s good that they admit that it’s not clear what the cause or causes could be.  Too often, those working with statistics take an opposite tack.

As far as resistance to science, however, the report may indicate that the cases where science and forensics matter most still do not get cooperation for law enforcement.  The first clue is that 57% of the exonerations in 2012 were homicide cases, and another 24% were sexual assaults — 81% in all.  These are the types of cases in which resistance science on eyewitness identification, interrogation, and  forensics can matter the most.  These cases also have the highest public profile.  And there, perhaps, is the rub: “Official cooperation is least common among exonerations for highly aggravated and publicized crimes – murders with death sentences and mass child sex abuse prosecutions – and most common among exonerations for robberies and drug crimes.”

The best way to answer whether this increased cooperation represents any lessening of the resistance to science would be to look at the individual exoneration cases for 2012: do they feature law enforcement cooperation over these science-based issues, or is it something else — for example, information on a witness interviews illegally withheld from the defendant in a previous trial?

Perhaps we will see that in the next report from the Registry.

My  presentation Failed Evidence on January 31 at the University of Toledo College of Law — lively, well attended, and intense — featured a great question that I want to put to everyone.

One person in attendance was a man who is a police chief in Ohio.  He’s had a long and distinguished career; I had the great privilege of working with him some years ago, when I was a member of the University of Toledo faculty.    In one part of my presentation on Failed Evidence, I discussed the more than 300 cases since 1989 in which DNA identification has resulted in an exoneration.   In the Q & A after the talk, the chief asked a question about the 300-plus cases.  I’ll paraphrase: among those cases, he said, there would be some in which the DNA results disproved the conviction, but did not necessarily prove the defendant was not guilty.  This is because, he said, the absence of the defendant’s DNA may not support guilt, but it also does not necessarily prove innocence either.  (I’m hoping I understood his comment/question correctly and am conveying it clearly.) Was I prepared to admit that in at least some of the 300 cases, the defendants might indeed be guilty, even if the DNA had resulted in the defendant’s release and the dropping of charges?

I have had this question asked of me before, and heard it posed to others.  I gave my answer, but I would like very much to hear yours.  What do you think? Is the question correct, or is it based on certain assumptions that may not hold?  What would your answer to the question be?

In the course of Failed Evidence, I argue that every prosecutor’s office needs a conviction integrity unit (CIU).  And in “Exoneration and Freedom For a Man Convicted in ’10”  (N.Y. Times, Oct. 27) we get a perfect example of why CIUs are so important.

The article concerns a robbery case brought against Lawrence Williams by the Brooklyn (N.Y.) District Attorney’s office.  The only evidence against Mr. Williams was a faulty eyewitness identification, but it was enough to convict him.  Eventually, another man, already in prison, confessed to the crime.

What makes the case unusual is that Mr. Williams’ post conviction claim that he was innocent was investigated not by an outside agency, but by a CIU inside the Brooklyn DA’s own office — the same DA’s office that convicted him in the first place.  The Williams case is the first such felony case that the Brooklyn DA’s CIU dealt with.

A CIU is a specialized group of lawyers within the DA’s office — just like the ones for sex offenses or for homicide — with the special job of investigating prior convictions in which there are plausible claims of innocence.   In other words, when a real claim surfaces that a conviction that the office obtained in the past is wrong and should be investigated, the CIU attorneys investigate, and tell the DA whether or not the conviction should stand.

CIU’s are incredibly important for two major reasons.  First, they become the regular institutional mechanism for addressing claims of wrongful convictions and actual innocence.  Courts are not set up to correct these types of mistakes, and the CIUs fill this enormous gap.  Second, with a regular mechanism in place to handle this task, reform efforts can concentrate on fixing the system going forward, and they are not consumed with the important work of getting justice in individual cases.

Every prosecutor’s office should have a CIU, or at least one attorney who handles CIU-type matters.  It is an innovation that will make prosecution better, and provided DAs with a regular way to correct mistakes and learn from them.

Readers: Does the DA’s office in your jurisdiction have a CIU?  Does it need one?

Upcoming posts will discuss the history of CIUs, why the Bro0klyn CIU stands out, and other issues.