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To Prevent Wrongful Convictions, Criminal Justice Must Adopt Quality Control Techniques Used By Airline Pilots And Medical Doctors -- Admit To Making Mistakes And Use The Information To Correct Structural Errors

James M. Doyle
Learning from Error in American Criminal Justice.
Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 100:109-147 (2010).

This conceptual article views the innocence movement as a catalyst and vehicle for criminal justice system reform.  Doyle argues that the direction of innocence reform should “shift from the retrospective adversary inspection model of quality control toward an ideal of continuous quality improvement.”  The aviation and medical industries have pioneered quality control methods and cultures. A comparable model of criminal justice reform should be adopted.

A 1996 National Institute of Justice report on the first twenty-eight DNA exonerations found that errors leading to miscarriages of justice “came from the sort of bread-and-butter cases that everyone had handled and would handle again, not from arcane borderland specialties.” This central idea, which has become the innocence paradigm that focuses on about eight or ten key sources of wrongful convictions, means that correcting routine errors can make the crime detection and prosecution function more accurate.  Indeed, scores of recommendations for improving eyewitness identification, interrogations and the like have been advanced by hundreds of scholars.   

Doyle’s article is unique in advocating changes in police, prosecution and adjudication cultures that would make self-reflection and system reform second nature.  Doyle draws on the approaches to pilot error innovated by the airline industry more than a half-century ago: human error by proficient professionals can be expected to happen. “In aviation, a pilot who promptly reports a near miss is immunized; the event is studied confidentially, and its lessons are disseminated.” The medical profession is now beginning to accept this approach. The problem with an “ideology of perfectionism and personal responsibility” is that errors are attributed to human failings and systemic factors are ignored.

For wrongful convictions to provide a basis for error correction, studies of exonerations need to go beyond a simple analysis of error sources; they need to offer more detailed studies of the steps that led to wrong conclusions. “The legal system, habituated to its tradition of dividing errors between harmful errors that threaten the reliability of verdicts and harmless errors that do not, has generally overlooked the potential of helpful errors. The contemporary criminal justice system lacks a routine for identifying and analyzing its unspectacular errors and a template for reporting their lessons.”

Criminal justice needs to develop something like a “teaching hospital” that carefully reviews errors, and a clearinghouse to collect and disseminate error-reduction findings. Fundamentally, it has to change the attitudes that attribute system errors to “bad apples” and, instead, to use “helpful errors” to improve the justice process. 

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