What should Americans expect of public officials AFTER a wrongful conviction?

In most endeavors a costly mistake results in immediate efforts to identify what went wrong and how it can be prevented. Curiously, in the criminal justice system, officials too often respond to the tragic error of convicting an innocent with defensiveness and denial. Such miscarriages of justice should prompt important improvements in the system, but these will be derailed or hard won until Americans clarify our expectations of officials after justice stumbles.

Following a wrongful conviction, public officials can go a long way toward restoring trust in the system by following a 7-step process—mandated by both decency and public relations 101—that includes (1) honestly acknowledging that a mistake was made; (2) exhibiting efforts to prevent it from happening again; (3) publicly apologizing for any personal contributions to the error and/or (4) apologizing on behalf of the criminal justice system; (5) doing all possible to restore the wrongfully convicted person’s reputation and opportunities to rebuild his or her life, including (6) supporting fair compensation for time spent in prison for crimes not committed; and, finally, (7) reinvestigating the case if the real perpetrator is still unknown.

If you think that these logical, productive responses are a given, think again.

While most professionals in the justice system are public servants worthy of our respect, it is not unusual for officials, in response to wrongful conviction, to fail to take some of these restorative steps or even any of them.

Recently, two cases in the state of Illinois demonstrated the worst and best of responses to wrongful conviction.

The case of Juan Rivera—a man championed by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law—demonstrated what we don’t want to see.

Although unconnected to the case, a former veteran New York City Police detective (thus one whom the public generally affords the presumption of experience and credibility) writing in a criminal justice educators online forum, recently expressed denial of wrongful conviction in general, and of that of Juan Rivera in particular:

I am pragmatic enough to know that of the 284 [Innocence Project] prisoners released, many are guilty of their crime and have been released but not exonerated or innocent…

In the case of Juan Rivera, 36 (3 trials) jurors affirmed his guilt. He was ‘exonerated’ in an antiseptic court environment, which dealt with issues of the law and their technicalities.”

Both pronouncements defy truth. The Innocence Project’s now-289 wrongfully convicted have had their convictions vacated. Indictments have been dismissed, exonerating them. Most were proven innocent through DNA analysis, and in 45 percent of the cases, the real perpetrator was identified.

The unanimous Illinois Appellate Court’s reversal of Juan Rivera’s conviction (here) was not based on legal technicalities, but on troubling insufficient evidence of guilt. The three-judge panel wrote:

“After viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, we hold that no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”   [“no” was italicized in the ruling]

“Because the State’s evidence was insufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we must reverse the conviction of Juan A. Rivera, Jr.”

It’s rare to see an appellate court utilize its discretion to reverse the factual determination of a jury. The ruling language, described by the Chicago Sun-Times as “a withering condemnation of the Lake County criminal justice system” appeared to be sending a message to those responsible for this overreaching prosecution.

A detective in the case, Lou Tessman, apparently took offense and sought to defend the Rivera investigation in a letter published in a the Daily Herald,  a suburban Chicago newspaper. We would likely find it offensive if a doctor sought to defend the protocols that resulted in the mistaken amputation of a wrong leg, but this was a similar attempt. Tessman began with the disclaimer that he wasn’t trying to persuade anyone of Rivera’s guilt. That’s good, because, after Rivera’s nearly 20 years of wrongful incarceration, this is finally no longer the question. DNA from the brutal rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker excluded Rivera. No physical evidence connected him to the crime. He was repeatedly convicted (the case was tried three times) because his confession was overpowering evidence for the juries.

More than 15 percent of DNA-proven wrongful convictions included a false confession, and we now know that under certain circumstances most of us would say and sign anything. Any police detective, prosecutor, or judge who doesn’t know this, is not prepared for their responsibility.

Rivera’s case had the red flags of a false confession. He was 19 and reportedly had an IQ of 79.  An average interrogation lasts two hours. The average interrogation that produced false confessions in wrongful convictions was 16.3 hours. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Juan Rivera’s interrogation lasted 24 hours. Tessman claimed it was 7.5 hours over two days. We know that false confessions have been coerced in less time than this.

Tessman also said that Rivera knew facts known only to the perpetrator. Police and prosecutors often make this claim, and I think they often believe it. However, in this case, the Appellate Court didn’t:

“The State acknowledges …the defendant’s father had learned about the crime in the newspapers and on television and discussed it with the defendant.” 

 The Court’s ruling revealed insights into how false confessions can happen:

“… the record reflects that officers used leading questions during their interrogation of defendant. Both Maley and Tessman interrogated defendant using facts of the case. …Tessman admitted using leading questions regarding the victim’s attire, asking “She had a multi-colored shirt on, right?” Maley’s testimony reflected that Tessman asked defendant questions “about facts in the previous statement that he believed were untrue.” Following this session of interrogation, defendant’s new statement reflected the victim’s correct attire…was “black stretch pants with stirrups on the bottoms and a multi-colored shirt.”

The Court said that the evidence:

“supports an inference that details of the crime were provided to defendant, intentionally or unintentionally, during the investigative process.  The evidence further supports an inference that the details that defendant provided were the result of psychological suggestion or linguistic manipulation…”

“… we are left with the impression that the details of defendant’s confession were procured ‘piecemeal’ and not as a result of a candid acknowledgment of guilt. Over the course of four days, there were no fewer than 10 law enforcement personnel discussing the crime with defendant or interrogating him.”

The Chicago Sun-Times agreed (here) with the ruling and supported Lake County State’s District Attorney Michael Waller’s subsequent decision not to continue to try to convict Juan Rivera:

“Virtually all that remained of the case was a dubious “confession,” obtained after a final interrogation from 8:10 a.m. on one day until 9 a.m. on the next — a confession from a man with an IQ of 79 who was hitting his head against a wall, speaking incoherently, hyperventilating and, in the words of a nurse, “not in touch with the reality of what was going on around him.””

It is not uncommon for current or former officials to avoid all the recommended responses to a wrongful conviction and instead imply that an exonerated person is still guilty. The retired NYC police detective did this when he said that many of the Innocence Project’s exonerated are actually guilty and that the overturning of Rivera’s conviction was based on legal technicalities.

Prosecutor Michael Mermel in essence did this when he continued to prosecute Rivera even after DNA evidence excluded him as a perpetrator. Mermel suggested that the young girl had contracted the contrary semen because she was likely sexually active.

Lou Tessman stooped to this in concluding his letter to the editor, “Rivera will have one more ‘judgment’ day and who knows what direction that will take him? Oh, and by the way, after that decision is made, there isn’t any appeal process.”

Vague and unsubstantiated insinuations like this are unconscionable insults to the wrongfully convicted and to the public. Mermel and Tessman should be focusing their attention, energy, and experience instead on determining how to prevent another case like Rivera’s.

The public and Holly Staker’s family also certainly deserve to see the day when the person who committed this heinous crime is brought to justice.

Contrast the Rivera case with the response to new post-conviction evidence of innocence in another recent Illinois case.

Jonathan Moore, a wrongfully convicted man, was freed this week after he’d served nearly 12 of 80 years in prison. He was wrongfully convicted of murder and attempted murder. Aurora, Illinois, police officers John Munn and Darryl Moore received a tip that another man had committed the crime. The officers investigated and located two witnesses who confirmed this. The officers presented the new evidence to prosecutors who called upon the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project to assist. Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon and Assistant State’s Attorney Bill Engerman filed a motion to vacate Jonathan Moore’s murder conviction. Judge Tim Sheldon approved the request. Police are now reinvestigating the case.

This is the way our justice system is supposed to work. It requires professionals who understand that their overarching duty is to seek the truth, not just win convictions.

Many citizens wonder what they can do to improve our criminal justice system. If America is to deliver on its promise of justice for all, we, as citizens, need to be diligent and must carefully observe the actions and decisions of those who serve us in criminal justice. How officials respond to a wrongful conviction reveals a lot about their character and whether or not they deserve our respect and our vote.

9 responses to “What should Americans expect of public officials AFTER a wrongful conviction?

  1. I understand the premise that those that facilitate the justice system feel they are doing so with the utmost of good intentions. However when a grevous miscarriage of justice has happened with a conviction of the innocent, then it is paramount that these facilitators learn from the mistake and fix what went wrong and publicly do so. If the justice system is to grow and be respected it must be held accountable as are the guilty.

  2. Well said, Nancy. Well said.

  3. Paul Smyth, Traverse City, MI

    Thank you for an excellent article. I have become deeply interested in these matters since studying the Amanda Knox case in detail. That particular wrongful conviction, in Perugia, Italy, is as clear an instance of two young people being framed as is possible to imagine. At first I was scornful of the Italian justice system. As I learned more I began to realize that injustices happen here more frequently than we would like to admit.

  4. Thank you for a fine article. I have studied a number of wrongful accusations and convictions; among them are Lindy Chamberlain, Patricia Stallings, the Duke lacrosse three, and Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito. GIven the number of people released after years or even decades of imprisonment, one wishes that there would be more interest in reform or at least in sober public reflection. My additional points are tangential: One thing that is lacking in our system is anyone within the government in whose interest it is to right a wrongful conviction. Perhaps related to this is that wrongful convictions are seldom corrected at the local level, and that partial corrections (West Memphis Three; Norfolk Four) are not uncommon.

  5. docilejimbrady

    I ♥ your write, Nancy.
    You work really helps spread the word of the importance of dramatically fixing the breaks in our justice system and setting up safeguards to avoid failures and egregious injustices in the future.

    It is bad enough to have the Holmes “stumbles” — we need to eliminate the Holmes “kicks”

    DJB, 43209-2216
    All rights reserved
    All wrongs denied ☺
    Saturday 2012-03-10 T 1630 –0500

  6. arkansastruthseeker

    Nancy you say most professionals in the justice system are public servants worthy of our respect,but after reading over so many cases of people that have been wrongly convicted I have to say
    it’s really hard to have respect especially because they tend to ignore their wrongs and keep on walking.
    I am not stupid enough to think all those claiming to be wrongly convicted are factually innocent, but the system to me should be doing it right the first time around there are no do over’s for the innocent
    it takes years for them to get justice. Just seem’s like the system is set up to let the guilty jump through a loop hole, and the innocent are paying the price.
    Off subject…… I think your awesome and this was a great article.

  7. Great article….it is sad though when people who are supposed to enforce the laws are a major part of what is wrong with what is going on….Innocent people get caught up in the system….and ended up being INDICTED, TRIED AND CONVICTED….when there is NO EVIDENCE TO PROVE that they are indeed GUILTY….anytime a person’s life is on the line…the entire trial should be video taped so that it can be shared with the public….just so they will know what is going on….

  8. http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-736024 This is a PRIME EXAMPLE of what can take place….this happened in the spring of 2011….and it will SHOCK you to hear/see what took place in the investigation and the trial itself…..it is UNBELIEVEABLE……

  9. Nothing surprises me after watching North Carolina do a repeat of “Scottsboro” in 2006 with the Duke lacrosse case. Now, since no changes have been made to NC laws, there is the Brad Cooper case in 2011.

    North Carolina does not have a Speedy Trial law; does not require transcripts of Grand Jury sessions; does not grant defendants an automatic right to a probable cause hearing; doesn’t mandate speedy granting of a Bill of Particulars, etc. (Nifong knew how to use the system: the lacrosse defendants were never questioned by police nor asked to give statements; by having a grand jury indict them he precluded their being able to present proof of their innocence to a probable cause hearing; etc.)

    In short, in NC you can lie to a grand jury with impunity (knowing no records will be kept of what was presented), stall defendants for years before trial, and prevent their having access to any hearing in which they can defend themselves.

    And this is America in 2012 (“What constitution? We don’t need no stinkin’ constitution…”)

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