If you are interested enough about wrongful convictions to be reading a column with an unappealing title (scholarship? really?), you are a part of the innocence movement … even if you don’t think so. More about where you fit in the movement later.
After two decades of teaching wrongful conviction courses at Wayne State University, publishing a raft of academic articles, and co-editing a book on the subject, I decided to start writing this column. Although I’m at the point of retirement from teaching I continue to write about wrongful convictions. More to the point, I continue to read relevant research which is generally beyond the patience of most readers. My mission in future columns is to alert readers to past and ongoing innocence research, and to suggest accessible reads to increase your wrongful conviction IQ.
What is the innocence movement? My conceptual map draws on two ideas—core vs. peripheral roles and visible vs. less visible roles.
Core movement people include innocence organization (often called “innocence projects”) lawyers, staff and supporters who work to exonerate and help the wrongfully convicted. It includes wrongfully convicted defendants and exonerees themselves (and close relatives and friends). Lawyers in prosecutors’ conviction integrity units and other attorneys who devote substantial effort to exonerate and compensate wrongfully convicted defendants are core movement members.
Others who participate in the movement may be core or peripheral depending on how much they participate. These can include government officers (legislators, executives, administrators) who pass laws and implement programs to reduce wrongful convictions and help exonerees. Also included are writers, journalists, documentarians, film and podcast producers who publicize wrongful convictions.
If you just read, watch, or listen to wrongful conviction stories or blogs where do you fit? An informed public is the essential fuel to any policy movement. Having been hooked by the compelling narratives of exonerees, and convinced that wrongful conviction is a serious issue, you’re part of the movement. But how well informed are you?
Innocence scholarship is the least visible part of the movement, but like the submerged part of an iceberg is a lot bigger than you might think. Before the 1990s there was very little innocence scholarship except for experiments about the psychology of eyewitnesses and lineups. With the emergence of the innocence movement huge bodies of research rapidly developed. Hundreds or thousands of books (some are quite readable) and tens of thousands of articles populate the interdisciplinary field of innocence scholarship.
Innocence research is essential and central to the movement because most of the ideas and programs for reducing the number of wrongful convictions, and for providing assistance to exonerees, originate with innocence scholarship. I’ll expand on this theme in later columns.
A challenge to accessing this iceberg is that innocence scholarship exists in four very different if overlapping research domains—psychology, law, forensic science, and a passel of social sciences like criminology, sociology, communications (and more). Nobody can be an expert in all of these areas. But as an active (and now retired) professor I had (and now have) a lot of time to read wrongful conviction research and scholarship. In future columns, I’ll pass on some of what I’ve learned from experts of the recondite subjects of innocence scholarship.
Copyright © 2023 Marvin Zalman