January 1, 2013
For those involved in the cause of improving criminal justice, the ringing in of a new year prompts reflection on mankind’s progress toward equal, fair, and accurate justice for all, the foundation of just societies and sustainable peace. By any measure, 2012 marked many advances for those dedicated to truth in criminal justice. Progress was made in achieving exonerations; expanding awareness, understanding, and activism; advocating for best practices in criminal justice policies and procedures; and increasing knowledge that can inform more accurate verdicts.
Here are ten notable advances achieved in the name of true justice in 2012:
Achieving exonerations; Expanding awareness and understanding…
1. The Innocence Network’s Exonerations Report for 2012 (here) details 22 exonerations. While these hard-won corrections in criminal justice have finally restored freedom to 22 wrongfully convicted persons, the report notes that they “are tragic reminders of how much work is still needed to uncover and prevent these terrible injustices.” Today the nation’s innocence projects also pursue justice in wrongful convictions that have no DNA evidence (roughly 90 percent of all criminal cases). Nonetheless, this year the Network reached the milestone of 300 DNA-proven wrongful convictions. The tally as of today: 301.
2. The National Registry of Exonerations (here), launched on May 21, 2012, by Michigan Law School and Northwestern Law School today reports 1,050 exonerations since 1989. The new Registry raised awareness of the scope of wrongful conviction well beyond those cases that can be proven by DNA. The Registry’s exoneration numbers consistently grew as more names and case stories were added this year. Sixty-two exonerations were added in 2012, the fourth most productive year since 1989 (following 75 in 2009, 68 in 2003, and 64 in 2001). Each exoneration represents many more wrongful convictions that have yet to be corrected. This year we witnessed more evidence that the red flags of exoneration are increasingly prompting re-examination of cases without DNA evidence. The Registry provides a searchable database that will support research and a better understanding of the causes of and contributors to wrongful conviction.
3. The Wrongful Convictions Blog (here), launched by Mark Godsey, Director of the Ohio Innocence Project, has provided an international forum on the topic. With contributing editors from around the world, the blog has become an international repository and forum for news and information. Increasingly, researchers, lawyers, and scholars recognize that wrongful conviction does not recognize national boundaries. The blog enables a broader understanding of commonalities in miscarriages of justice around the world. No longer considered a rare occurrence of innocent human error, wrongful conviction is increasingly viewed as an international human rights issue.
4. The Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition sponsored a six-city tour of public forums focused on preventing prosecutorial error and misconduct (more here). This initiative of Santa Clara (CA) Law’s Northern California Innocence Project and its Veritas Initiative; the Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of New Orleans, and Voices of Innocence came in the wake of the March 2011 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Connick v. Thompson, which overturned a $14 million jury award for John Thompson. He had spent 14 years on death row before evidence of his innocence resulted in a dismissal of his armed robbery conviction. A new trial was granted in the murder case and Thompson was found not guilty. The high court ruled that even though prosecutors had withheld evidence of Thompson’s innocence, an egregious Brady violation, the prosecutor’s office could not be held accountable. The public forums elevated the discussion of prosecutorial accountability to a national audience.
5. A rare formal inquiry in Texas will determine whether a once-popular prosecutor will face criminal charges stemming from his prosecution of an innocent man. Former Williamson County (TX) district attorney Ken Anderson, now a district judge, will be subject to a formal hearing stemming from his prosecution of Michael Morton. It was discovered that strong evidence of Morton’s innocence was known but not shared with the defense, as required of prosecutors by Brady vs. Maryland. Morton subsequently was convicted and served 25 years for the murder of his wife, which DNA finally proved he did not commit. The inquiry, originally scheduled in 2012 has been rescheduled to 2013. It promises to focus national attention on the issues of prosecutorial misconduct and immunity. Read more here.
6. Awareness of wrongful conviction expanded worldwide as new Innocence Projects, patterned on the U.S. model, were planned or established in the U.S. and internationally. Founded in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, the first Innocence Project utilized DNA testing to prove the innocence of those wrongfully convicted. Committed to correcting conviction errors and promoting best practices in criminal justice procedures, Innocence Project legal clinics were established in subsequent years throughout the United States. This year saw the expansion of clinics both in the U.S. and internationally. New projects were launched, for example, in the Philippines and Chile, joining other projects outside U.S. borders including those in Australia, Canada, Ireland, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. (More here.)
Advancing best practices; applying new understandings…
7. In July the New Jersey Supreme Court issued new guidelines regarding what juries in the state must be told about conditions that impact the reliability of eyewitness identification. Judges must explain factors such as lighting, distance, stress levels, and the challenges of cross-racial identification, among others. The court thus created the most detailed eyewitness instructions in the U.S. and a guideline for other states committed to reducing the frequency of eyewitness misidentification as a contributor to wrongful convictions. (More here)
A growing activism by everyday people…
8. The public’s growing awareness of wrongful conviction and the contribution of prosecutorial overreach and misconduct was evidenced in turnovers in prosecutor’s offices in 2012. How prosecutors have dealt with claims of innocence and accuracy of convictions under their watch were issues in election and re-election campaigns. A widely followed example was the primary election of John Bradley. The once popular tough-on-crime prosecutor of Williamson County (TX) lost his primary bid for re-election in a campaign that highlighted Bradley’s opposition to testing of DNA evidence, which had delayed for six years the exoneration of Michael Morton. Morton served 25 years for the murder of his wife, Christine, a crime the DNA testing eventually proved he did not commit. (More here.)
New understandings prompting broader review…
9. Officials with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science reported in June that testing of hundreds of old Virginia rape and homicide case DNA evidence supported a surprising number of exonerations. According to an Associated Press article here, the testing suggested the exoneration of at least 38 persons. The researchers found that in 5 percent of the homicide and sexual assault cases, the new testing ruled out the convicted person. In the sexual assault category alone, the testing excluded a minimum of 8 percent of those convicted. While all of the cases were from Virginia, researchers indicated that similar results would likely occur elsewhere. The stash of archived, decades-old DNA had already exonerated five men wrongly convicted of sexual assault.
10. Numerous exonerations drew attention to other similar convictions ripe for review. Due to new understandings in forensic science, numerous convictions will likely be reviewed based on discredited or questionable science used at trial, specifically, for example, in arson, shaken baby syndrome, and murder and rape cases (the latter when convictions were based largely on discredited testimony in forensics involving, hair analysis, among others). (Read an account relating to arson forensics here.)
For the innocent languishing in prison and for their families, another year has concluded with justice still denied. We have a long way to go to restore justice in individual cases and to establish best practices in criminal justice that can reduce conviction error. However, the advances of 2012 also indicate how far we have come from the first use of DNA in criminal cases in the United States in 1989. It is not too optimistic to report that the tide supporting more accurate, fair, and improved criminal justice procedures and practices in the U.S. and in other nations is strong. Perhaps in 2012 it became even irreversible.