17 April 2013

Making the Grade: Are States Doing Enough to Prevent Wrongful Convictions?

by James Dilmore and Lisa Brunner, Op-Ed Participants

David Ranta spent the past 22 years in a maximum-security prison near Buffalo. Ranta was convicted of murdering Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger during a botched robbery. The tragedy of Werzberger’s death is compounded by a further tragedy, as reported by the New York Times on March 20, 2013: Ranta is almost certainly not guilty of the crime.
            The heart-wrenching tales of the wrongfully convicted routinely top media outlets’ most-shared lists. Since beginning their work in 1992, the Innocence Project has achieved the exoneration of 305 individuals. The story of each exoneree differs, but common themes emerge: a criminal justice system that failed, and shattered lives. It is too easy to read a headline, say what a shame, and turn the page. Yet neither the wrongfully convicted nor the victims’ families have that luxury. We in the legal community have an obligation to do more than just fold up the newspaper with a shake of the head. We should instead ask what went wrong and investigate how we improve the criminal justice system, striving to maintain the integrity of our legal system and avoid such horrific mistakes in the future.
            Indeed, by strategically evaluating past exonerations, we can establish common causes of incorrect convictions. For example, faulty identifications by witnesses, false confessions by the accused, misused or flawed forensic science and fabricated incriminations by jailhouse informants are all frequently to blame for innocent individuals being convicted. Knowing the causes is just the beginning of the inquiry. We must then ask, “How can these aspects of the criminal justice system be targeted for improvement? Are states doing enough to protect the tremendous liberty interests at stake?”
A group of students at Duquesne Law are attempting to answer these questions. Using the results of extensive social science research and the trends from the Innocence Project’s exonerations, Stephen Chesney, Ashley Moss, James Dilmore and Scott Graham developed methods for scoring the performance of states in these crucial aspects of criminal process. For example, psychological experiments demonstrate that suspect identification is a malleable process; the memory of a witness can be shaped by later influences and is just as delicate as physical evidence.
National scorecard on causes of wrongful conviction.  

Duquesne Law students Stephen Chesney, Ashley Moss, James Dilmore and Scott Graham 

have taken the results of extensive social science research and the trends from the Innocence Project’s 

exonerations to develop methods for scoring the performance of states in these crucial aspects of criminal process. 

This map demonstrates how states measured up.
Traditional processes for conducting identifications—through presentation of a mug shot “six pack” and extensive investigator interaction—can result in shaping the witness’s memory to fit the selections. In other words, the mug shot that most closely resembles the actual perpetrator becomes the match, especially if the witness’s choice is confirmed by the investigator with a simple, “Good work. You found the right guy.”
Better to have a “blind” administrator (unfamiliar with the crime or the suspects) presenting pictures of potential subjects sequentially, research suggests. By establishing a “best practice” model for suspect identification including these and other factors, the students formed a grading rubric to evaluate a state’s performance. Similar approaches were applied to other causes of wrongful convictions. Each factor was weighted by the relative frequency of occurrence to develop a national “scorecard” for the statutory procedural safeguards employed by the states. 
Results of the study were surprising. One might suspect that a “tough on crime” state like Texas would perform poorly, while traditionally liberal states would pass with flying colors. Instead, the opposite was observed. States with the highest scores included Texas, Illinois, Ohio and North Carolina, with Texas being far and away the best. South Dakota, Kansas, Kentucky and Mississippi had the lowest scores. Pennsylvania fell in the bottom third at #36. Interestingly, many states with high scores also had high numbers of exonerations, with Texas again leading the way with 47. It appears that if states have a recognized problem—if numerous exonerations have occurred—steps are taken to correct the situation.
While intriguing, the real utility of these data lies in their potential to motivate changes. When confronted by reform-minded activists, police departments and lawmakers often assert that procedural reform would be too burdensome to implement or that the changes will not have a significant impact. The data belie those arguments. Some states—indeed, some large states—have implemented changes. The sheer volume of exonerations also drives home the point that the system is at times flawed. The substantial liberty interests at stake are worthy of these achievable and modest procedural reforms. Most importantly, by reforming the already exceptional criminal justice system, state governments will only enhance the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system’s ability to convict criminals while sparing the innocent.