Police dishonesty — during an investigation or in the courtroom — is undoubtedly a major cause of wrongful convictions. It’s hard to nail down what percentage of wrongful convictions are caused in whole or part by police dishonesty, though, for several reasons.
One is that the dishonesty, usually in the investigative stage, often goes undocumented. Another is that police and prosecutors are loath to ever admit to dishonesty in the courtroom, no matter how obvious it seems to others, and most judges look the other way.
But that could be changing. In a Florida case reported here by Boston attorney Howard Friedman, a judge refused to admit evidence obtained during a search initiated after a police officer gained access to the defendant’s home by lying. The cop said the defendant’s mother consented to the search once he got his foot in the door and she said she didn’t. The judge sided with the defendant’s mother because the cop was an admitted liar.
Friedman goes on to quote from an article in Police Chief magazine about eight common justifications police officers give for lying that can best be summarized by saying that the end justifies the means: It’s OK for the good guys to lie and cheat to beat the bad guys.
A lot of this problem starts with the kind of people attracted to law enforcement. I was reminded of this when I recently reviewed the personnel file of a detective who struck me as being particularly disingenuous when he testified at trial in a case I was reviewing.
The detective’s pre-employment psychological profile was telling. It concluded that he was “a person who had a rigid concept of right and wrong and by his own admission saw very few shades of gray.” The profile went on to note that the officer “basically had little sensitivity toward anyone other than himself.”
Despite that assessment (or perhaps, sadly, because of it), the applicant was not only hired but rapidly promoted to detective. So I wasn’t surprised to see, in reviewing one of his cases, that he twisted the facts when he interviewed the defendant’s co-workers to elicit the answers he wanted, nor to hear some of those co-workers speak of his intimidating follow-up visits before trial. The detective knew what the truth was, and he was willing to lie to prove it.
There are far too many people like that in law enforcement. As I argued in my 1991 book Presumed Guilty, it is important that police departments “attract a better mix of officers who can look at problems from a variety of perspectives” to avoid the type of tunnel vision that contributes to wrongful convictions. Two decades later, I see little evidence that is happening. Most cops still only see things in black and white even though there are lots of shades of gray in the world in which they operate. Miscarriages of justice are bound to follow as long as that continues.