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This 180-page book reports on 10 years of research on the factors involved in wrongful convictions. The authors use case samples and survey data to produce a careful, well-reasoned, and conservative approach to the frequency, causes, and consequences of putting innocent people in prisons. The book ends with a list of references, case citations, and an index.
This is a frightening book. No society can long survive when its justice system frequently delivers injustice. The present anxiety about crime has triggered a draconian response relying on harsher and more punitive tactics at every step in a justice system process
directed at imprisonment. The United States now has the highest proportional prison population of any nation in the world. Some of those in prison are innocent, the victims of wrongful conviction.
The authors report that a survey of justice system officials produces an estimated wrongful conviction rate of .5% for index crimes. This suggests that over 10,000 innocent people are behind bars. They also report that innocent people whose convictions have been overturned and who have been released believe that 25% to 40% of those in prison are likely wrongfully convicted. Although authorities with a vested interest in protecting the justice system are apt to minimize the frequency of wrongful convictions while those released are inclined to overestimate it, either estimate is frightening.
The most troublesome finding of this research program is that there is clearly a systemic error involved. Mistakes made at an earlier level are not corrected at later steps in the process; instead, early errors are ratified and compounded so that cases inexorably move forward. "The further a case progresses in the system, the less chance there is that an error will be discovered and corrected, unless it involves a basic issue of constitutional rights and due process " (p. 144). There can be little faith in an appellate process that only reverses prior errors if it cannot be avoided or when a specific case gets glaring media attention. The authors state, "If we had to isolate a single 'system dynamic' that pervades large numbers of these cases, we would probably describe it as police and prosecutorial overzealousness: the anxiety to solve a case; the ease with which one having such anxiety is willing to believe, on the slightest evidence of the most negligible nature, that the culprit is in hand; the willingness to use improper, unethical, and illegal means to obtain a conviction, when one believes that the person at the bar is guilty" (p. 64).
The book gives 13 suggestions for public policy proposals that may reduce the frequency of wrongful convictions and restore confidence in the justice system; these range from reduction in reliance upon imprisonment to removing the death penalty. They are reasonable and may have an effect, but it remains the case that any justice system is administered by people. As long as people are not accountable for the behaviors cited as the single most significant cause of
error police and prosecutor overzealousness not much will change.
Although not specifically stated, the suggestion is certainly here that the
overzealousness of police and prosecutors can result in a high proportion of
wrongful convictions in sexual abuse cases. Sexual abuse allegations elicit
powerful emotional involvement from everybody involved and there is a readiness immediately to judge a person accused to be guilty.
There is no other book that is as broad, insightful, and amasses so much data on innocent people
wrongfully imprisoned. It may be frightening, but it should be read by all American who are concerned with fairness and justice.
Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.