The New York Times reported this weekend that two new studies have looked closely at the wrongful conviction epidemic, and have concluded that there are literally thousands of people serving sentences in prison for crimes they did not commit.
The first, “Judging Innocence”, is soon-to-be-published in the Columbia Law Review, conducted by University of Virginia Professor Brandon Garrett. Professor Garrett’s study systematically examined all of the DNA exonerations and concluded that “the leading cause of the wrongful convictions was erroneous identification by eyewitnesses, which occurred 79 percent of the time. In a quarter of the cases, such testimony was the only direct evidence against the defendant.” Other leading causes of wrongful convictions were faulty forensic evidence, unreliable snithc testimony and false confessions.
As the Times reports, Professor Garrett’s study also “strongly suggests . . . that there are thousands of people serving long sentences for crimes they did not commit but who have no hope that DNA can clear them.” This suggestion is based on the fact that so many DNA exonerations have occurred despite the fact that DNA evidence onlly exists in a small subset of cases.
The second forthcoming study, by Professors Samuel Gross at Michigan Law School and Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State, reached similar conclusions. Specifically, the Michigan study concluded:
“The main thing we can safely conclude from exonerations is that there are many other false convictions that we have not discovered,” the Michigan study said. “In addition, a couple of strong demographic patterns appear to be reliable:
Black men accused of raping white women face a greater
risk of false conviction than other rape defendants; and young suspects, those under 18, are at greater risk of false confession than other suspects.”
One other important point from the studies: “The courts performed miserably in ferreting out the innocent.” Among other things, that really needs to change, and reforming ID procedures is one way to make it happen.