New Year Reflections

Nancy Petro

Progress in the area of wrongful convictions is slow, but 2012 was a good year. We don't think we could do much better than to point you to Nancy Petro's blog, 2012: A Banner Year for the Cause of Reducing Wrongful Conviction on The Wrongful Convictions Blog. It is an excellent review of the advances made this year. Among her points were: The establishment of an inquiry whether a prosecutor will face criminal charges for his role in convicting an innocent man, the expansion of innocence projects to other countries, the New Jersey Supreme Court issuing new guidelines regarding eye witness identification, prosecutors beginning to lose reelections because of their handling of wrongful conviction cases, and other insights.

There is no question that the pendulum is beginning to swing back . . . not with great speed . . . but it is beginning to change direction. The advent of DNA exonerations historically is without precedence as a way of testing the veracity of past convictions. Now, every week we hear of a new DNA or non-DNA exoneration. Prisoners who have been incarcerated for decades have been proven innocent. It is worth pointing out that rarely do we hear that it was a matter of the jury just getting it wrong. This is most always some form of prosecutorial misconduct, forced false confessions, intentional misreporting or incompetent forensics, or tunnel vision on the part of prosecutors so that the jury never gets the straight scoop. No one thought  our system was perfect, but few thought it was capable of so many wrongful convictions. 

However, 2012 has not diminished our system's capacity to wrongfully convict. The general population reads about exonerations, the righting of a wrong. What they do not read about is the unfathomable resistance that still pervades our criminal justice system, holding it back from a true, heart-felt self-examination. Consider these few areas of which there are many more:

  • DNA testing. Why, after all we have been through, do wrongfully convicted people still have to wait 5, 10, 15 years just for the right to have their DNA tested with prosecutors fighting them at every turn????? New York Times article  Kirstin Blaise Lobato
  • Ridiculous explanations for keeping wrongfully convicted persons in jail. Our system is supposed to convict people based on evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.  Yet, the prosecutors who fight these cases (we do not malign all prosecutors) come up with some of the most ridiculous theories that must be products of a skewed "group think", seemingly oblivious to outside reality checks. The average citizen responds by saying, "Can you believe what they've come up with?" And never mind that these theories are totally different from the ones which originally convicted these people.  60 Minutes on False Confessions and Cook County DA  If it weren't so tragic, it would be fodder for a sit-com.
  • False Confessions and Plea Bargains. The evidence is overwhelming that people have plenty of reasons to make false confessions or agree to a plea despite their innocence and do so on a regular basis. If you are a youth, your chances are 5 times more likely, and if you are mentally challenged, your chances are 9 times more likely that you will have made a false confession. Yet we have prosecutors and judges who seemingly haven't read a single study in their own area of law.  "Why would a person (mentally challenged 14 year old boy) "confess", if he wasn't guilty?!", they ask. Never mind the fact that a professional hit man from his cell takes credit for the murder and says he has never even laid his eyes on the boy. Davontae Sanford
  • The Courts Extremely Slow in Adapting. In spite of the revelation that there are many more wrongful convictions than previously thought, the courts have made very little change acknowledging this reality. Appeals courts are still preoccupied with procedural errors rather than content and their acknowledgment of much new evidence as being "new evidence", sufficient to grant a new trial, should have a lower, more reasonable bar without time constraints.

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Historically, 2012 has been a wonderful year for the reasons Nancy Petro lists, but the fight ahead is no less now than before. Each of Proving Innocence's four missions takes a tremendous amount of money, time and energy to make headway: 1) Investigating cases of wrongful convictions so that they may be taken into court and overturned. 2) Continuing to hold up for the public the magnitude of this problem, so they can become more discerning. 3) Changing the laws, so that a soulless system becomes accountable to the people it is supposed to serve and makes reparations. And 4) helping those whose best years of their lives have be stolen from them to emotionally heal and get their lives back on track relationally and financially.

Thank you for your help in the upcoming year as we fight for what is right and just.  Click here to donate!

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