Why a Wrongful Conviction is Like a Plane Crash – or Should Be

The civil aviation system and the justice system are two ubiquitous systems on which we absolutely depend daily; even with our lives.  When either of these systems fails, the consequences are invariably tragic, impacting families and lives.

When a plane crash occurs, the NTSB (National Traffic Safety Board) and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), along with local police, fire, and medical examiners, literally swoop in, and investigate the crash down to the minutest detail.  Sometimes, even the FBI gets involved. See the article “Inside the Aircraft Accident Investigation Process” here. As a result of the investigation, there can be changes made to the air traffic control system, and orders can go out to aircraft manufacturers and airlines requiring design changes or inspections of aircraft, and whole fleets of airplanes can be grounded until changes or fixes are implemented.  New training requirements can be established. All this is the absolutely proper and necessary thing to do.  When a system that we all depend on fails, we need to understand what happened, understand why it failed, and make changes so it never happens again.

If this is true for the air travel system, and I cannot believe anyone would disagree with that, why should the same not be true for the justice system? It’s a system on which we all depend.  When it fails, lives are shattered, children are taken from parents, families are separated, innocent people are put in prison, and innocent people are even executed.

When a failure of the justice system occurs, what happens? Based upon my years of working in this, absolutely nothing. A wrongful conviction may be overturned, but nothing changes in the system as a result of it, and indeed, there is not even an investigation by an authoritative body to determine what went wrong, and how to fix it. My experience tells me that when the justice system fails, the response from the system is, “Oh well, too bad. Now on with business as usual.” And the same failures keep happening over and over and over.

Why can’t there be an “NTSB” for the justice system? — a body with the authority and responsibility to examine justice system failures, and to take the necessary actions to ensure they don’t happen again. This could absolutely be done on the state level. I find the logic of this inescapable. You cannot possibly build a credible, supportable argument against it. But knowing what I know about politics, legislatures, and human nature, I’m not optimistic. But how can you possibly argue that this wouldn’t be the right thing to do?

One response to “Why a Wrongful Conviction is Like a Plane Crash – or Should Be

  1. It’s an excellent idea that every wrongful conviction/exoneration should be investigated, with the goals of determining what happened and of establishing what needs to be done to prevent such injustice in the future. The NTSB investigations occur, every time, because they are required by federal law. To achieve parallel regularity and thoroughness, the Innocence Movement should seek similar laws at the state and federal levels to mandate such investigations. The charters of existing state Innocence Commissions should be amended to incorporate that need, to the extent that they don’t already do so. In the states without Innocence Commissions, and in the Federal Government, bills should be proposed to create them, including provisions for NTSB-like investigations. As noted in Phil’s posting yesterday, “Politics,” the answer is for the Innocence Movement to assertively increase its political efforts. A primary function of government is JUSTICE, and the Innocence Movement, as a part of the civil rights movement, should urge governments to perform that function fairly.

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