John Grisham on Eyewitness IDs and the “Human Cost of Wrongful Convictions”

John Grisham recently appeared on “Bill Moyers Journal” for an interview on his life and work. A highlight of the conversation was Grisham’s discussion of the wrongful conviction problem that continues to plague the American criminal justice system:

JOHN GRISHAM: Let me say, exonerations are… there have been a lot of them. We’ve kind of gotten used to them. They happen all the time now. […] Wrongful convictions happen every week in every state in this country. And they happen for all the same reasons. Sloppy police work. Eyewitness identification is the most– is the worst type almost. Because it’s wrong about half the time. Think about that.

BILL MOYERS: Eyewitnesses?

JOHN GRISHAM:Eyewitness identification. They get it wrong about half the time. And that’s sent more men to prison than probably anything else. Sloppy police work. Sloppy prosecutions. Junk science. Snitch testimony. What– it happens all the time.

[…]

There are five or six primary reasons you have wrongful convictions. All could be addressed. All could be fixed with the right statutes. And it would save a lot of wrongful– the human cost of wrongful convictions is enormous. But the economic cost is huge too.

Maybe Grisham can help drive the wrongful conviction issue into the mainstream, and alert people that this isn’t a problem without identifiable solutions. As he points out, a simple statute requiring certain well-established best practices for the collection of eyewitness evidence could substantially curb the problem.

Grisham also touches on the death penalty (“it’s expensive to crank up the machinery of death”), electoral corruption, and poverty. Well worth a look (or read) — the full interview is available here, video and transcript.

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