Category Archives: Reforming/Improving the system

A Case for Mercy and Discretion in Criminal Justice

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

– Abraham Lincoln

So-called tough-on-crime policies in the United States over several decades have resulted in unanticipated changes in the criminal justice system that most Americans probably do not fully realize. Mandatory sentencing, policies such as “three strikes,” and increasing use of plea bargaining as opposed to jury trials have prompted an explosion in the prison population and unprecedented prosecutorial authority. With all due respect to those prosecutors who serve us well, we now know that increased power and immunity from abuses have enabled prosecutorial misconduct, a significant contributor to wrongful convictions.

While the Innocence Project and other organizations work to correct miscarriages and prevent others, and new models such as conviction integrity units seek to address the failure of the appeal process to correct conviction errors, a recent case demonstrated the appropriate use of an intact but rarely used remedy: mercy and discretion by public officials.

These capacities once broadly utilized by judges in sentencing may be the most efficient way to cure injustices whether wrongful convictions or unfair sentencing. In a recent illustration, no one questioned the guilt of Francois Holloway. The New York Times reported (here) and (here) that he was charged in 1995 with three counts of carjacking and using a weapon during a violent crime (he did not carry a gun but his accomplice did).

When the government prosecutor offered Holloway a plea deal with a prison term of 11 years, he declined. Holloway’s lawyer assured him that he would win at trial.

His attorney was wrong. Continue reading

Eyewitnesses Are Often Wrong

We’ve commented before on this blog about how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be — see here, here, here, and here.

The US justice system gives great credence to eyewitness identification, and an eyewitness identification will even trump an airtight alibi in court.  But according to the most recent data from the National Registry of Exonerations, false or mistaken eyewitness identification is a contributing factor in 36% of wrongful convictions:

NRE graph

Here is a brief CNN clip, featuring cognitive psychologist Prof. Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine and the University of Washington, giving some examples of faulty eyewitness testimony: Eyewitnesses Are Often Wrong.

If you would like a real “eye opener” on the subject, I recommend the book Picking Cotton by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino.  The book details an instance in which the victim had close, lengthy, one-on-one contact with the perpetrator, and still got the eyewitness identification wrong – multiple times.

 

25th Anniversary of First DNA Exoneration in the U.S.

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the first DNA exoneration in the U.S.  Professor Daniel Medwed reflects:

Twenty-five years ago today, an Illinois court overturned Gary Dotson’s conviction for rape and aggravated kidnapping after DNA tests performed on the biological evidence in the original rape kit excluded him as the perpetrator. This was the first exoneration of an innocent prisoner in this country based on post-conviction DNA testing, and it was not the last. According to data compiled by the Innocence Project in New York City, post-conviction DNA evidence has since yielded 316 other exonerations in the United States.  

Relatively simple fixes can decrease the risk of error in a criminal case….Many states have yet to install these reforms.

What have we learned from these DNA exonerations? Scholars have examined these cases in search of what went wrong. Among the chief contributors to the conviction of an innocent defendant are: eyewitness misidentifications; false confessions; poor decision-making by police and prosecutors; ineffective assistance of defense counsel; and the use of dubious forensic science. Relatively simple fixes can decrease the risk of error in a criminal case. These include: altering the manner in which eyewitness identifications occur; videotaping police interrogations; and asking prosecutors to use checklists to ensure they comply with their constitutional obligations. Many states have yet to install these reforms.

Beyond DNA exonerations, there is the issue of wrongful convictions that cannot be overturned with DNA testing. Biological evidence such as blood, saliva, skin cells and semen is found in only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of criminal cases. What’s more, this evidence is occasionally lost, destroyed or degraded.

Even when biological evidence is available, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are not always forthcoming in disclosing it to the defense. Add to this the hurdle of testing the evidence in compliance with legal requirements, and the challenge of proving a wrongful conviction using DNA technology is even greater.

For this reason, DNA testing has not and cannot solve the problem of wrongful convictions.  The same factors that led to the initial miscarriages of justice in the DNA exonerations appear in cases without any available biological evidence. Absent the authority of science, it is exceedingly difficult to overturn a wrongful conviction in these so-called non-DNA cases. Attorneys litigating them must often rely on subjective evidence of innocence. In doing so, they tend to encounter strict time limits, cumbersome burdens of proof and the pervasive skepticism of prosecutors and judges.

Absent the authority of science, it is exceedingly difficult to overturn a wrongful conviction in these so-called non-DNA cases.

The next phase of work in this field, then, is to implement lasting reforms to bolster accuracy in all criminal cases and to make it easier to present non-DNA innocence claims in post-conviction proceedings.

It may be fair to say that the Dotson exoneration a quarter century ago helped launch a revolution in criminal law: a legal, political and social campaign to rectify injustices that some have labeled a civil rights movement for this century. This revolution is far from over.

Sex Offender Registries (SOR’s): TIME-FOR-A-CHANGE

registry swamp

Editor’s Note:  Although this article is clearly editorial in nature, it contains a substantial amount of fact and data that have direct bearing on the subject.  It’s also a long article, and I hope you’ll have the patience to read it through to the end.

The article is in five sections:

The History of Sex Offender Registries in the US

Sex Offender Registries are Manifestly Unjust

Sex Offender Registries Don’t Work

Sex Offender Registries Cost a Lot of Money

Conclusion

Continue reading

Militarized Police

The militarization of police scares the hell out of me.

How about you?

This from the NY Times: Get the Military Off of Main Street.

Dredging the Prosecutorial Muck in Orange County

From the OC Weekly:

Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, is set to issue an Aug. 4 ruling about whether prosecutors in the Orange County (CA) district attorney’s office (OCDA) and local law enforcement, including OCSD (Orange County Sheriff’s Department) deputies, cheated in hopes of securing the death penalty for Scott Dekraai, the shooter in the 2011 Seal Beach salon massacre — and, if so, what penalties should be imposed.

This is subsequent to a three-justice panel at the California Court of Appeals based in Santa Ana observing that jail deputies at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) “engaged in abhorrent conduct and were derelict in their duties.”  That is:  committing perjury; doctoring logs; unnecessarily firing weapons at inmates sitting on toilets; ignoring medical emergencies; bolstering the power of incarcerated organized-crime bosses; encouraging inmate-on-inmate violence; and spending work hours running private businesses, sleeping, surfing the Internet, watching TV or texting love interests.

Read the OC Weekly story here.

A Blog on Junk Science Forensics – At Last!

cropped-bowers_capitol-small1

Here at the WCB, we’ve posted many, many articles dealing with the highly questionable scientific validity of most all forensic disciplines.  I’m very happy to report that there is now a blog dedicated to that issue.

Dr. Michael Bowers is a practicing dentist and forensic odontologist in Ventura, CA, and a long time forensic consultant in the US and international court systems. His newest book, “Forensic Testimony, Science, Law and Expert Evidence” with Elsevier/Academic Press is available on Amazon.

Dr. Bowers has some refreshing and insightful views on the validity of forensics, and maintains a blog addressing the “junk science” that so many in the justice system refer to as “forensic science.”  Please visit that blog here: Forensics in Focus.

[Editor's note:  I, personally, refuse to call them forensic sciences.  They are not sciences.  Technologies? Disciplines?  Perhaps, but they're not sciences.]

PS:  I have reviewed Dr. Bowers’ new book Forensic Testimony – Science, Law, and Expert Evidence, and you can read that review here.  I highly recommend it.