On May 21, we reported on a claim that some 2,000 people have been exonerated after serving serious prison time in the United States over the past 23 years. Here we take a closer look at this report.
The previous article did not go into a great deal of detail, and neither can this one. For those who wish to read it, the full title of the report on exonerations is Exonerations in the United States, 1989-2012: Report by the National Registry of Exonerations, and it is available in Portable Document Format from the website of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
As well as defining the term, the report includes sections on: Guilty defendants misclassified as innocent; Innocent defendants misclassified as guilty; DNA cases; mistakes and lies by witnesses; eyewitness errors; false confessions; bad forensic evidence; shaken baby cases; arson cases; and fabricated crimes.
The report begins with the case of 19 year old Edward Carter, who spent 35 years in prison for a rape committed by someone else. A case like this is really a treble tragedy: most of all for the man convicted, for the victim, and also for any future victims of the real perpetrator. Happily, miscarriages of justice of this magnitude are unlikely to happen now, at least in rape cases, because of DNA profiling. There have been others though, some every bit as tragic, most notably Thomas Haynesworth and James Bain.
There is a breakdown of exonerations by both sex and race; it will surely come as no surprise that 93% were male, because men commit far more crime than women, period. No doubt the usual suspects will try to make much of the 50% for black and 38% for white, but this is not important in the grand scheme of things. The report contains a lot of statistics and a good few graphs.
A disturbing number of these cases concern rape, murder, or both.
One category that stands out for women is convictions for crimes that never happened, notably shaking babies to death. There have been a number of these and similar cases in the UK that have attracted enormous publicity, including the case of pharmacist Trupti Patel, who lost three babies in infancy. The sad thing is that babies do sometimes just die for no apparent reason, and there are a number of medical conditions that can manifest in both babies and older children that can easily be misread for physical abuse.
By the time Mrs Patel stood trial, enough evidence had emerged from other cases to show that something else was going on here besides psychopathic behaviour, and she was acquitted. Others were not so lucky, including Sally Clark.
Extremely disturbing are cases of fabricated child sexual abuse and rape, something the loony feminists would like us to believe either never happen or are extremely rare. Sadly, that is not the case; every week if not every day there is a false allegation against some poor sap somewhere, and that is only the ones we find on Google News.
On page 51, the case of Gary Dotson is discussed; in 1977, he was picked out of a line up by 16 year old Cathleen Crowell who claimed she had been raped. In 1985, having married and moved to a different state, she admitted she had made the whole thing up because she was afraid she had become pregnant by her boyfriend. It took another 4 years to clear Dotson, who had been sentenced to 25 years to 50 years. This is said to be the first post-conviction DNA exoneration in an American rape case.
Some more information on this case can be found here, and here, and on that font of all knowledge Wikipedia.
Not unlike a few innocent men who have served hard time, Dotson appears to have readjusted badly to life back on the street. He does not appear to have received compensation from the authorities, nor was the girl/woman who wrecked his life prosecuted - as she should have been. She was though held to account by a higher power, and died from breast cancer in May 2008 aged 46.
The report highlights a surprising (for those not au fait with them) and disturbing number of false allegation in child abuse cases. Sometimes, these false allegations can be extensive and bizarre in equal measure, and when they are directed at the high and mighty, there are some people who will grasp the nettle and never let it go in spite of the consequences for themselves, as the Robert Green case - in Scotland - attests.
Bad forensic evidence and even on occasion outright fraud can be responsible for convicting innocent people; it seldom if ever occurs to defence lawyers - in the US or anywhere - to challenge the integrity of those who gather and process such evidence, even in the recent Stephen Lawrence case in the UK where this was possible or even likely.
Not much attention is given here to plea bargaining; this process is all but unknown in the UK, but in the US it is a regular in many criminal trials. An offer of a plea bargain can present an innocent defendant with hard choices. While a defendant should be given credit for admitting an offence and pleading guilty at the earliest opportunity - as happens in the UK - an innocent person should never be tempted to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit in order to receive a more lenient sentence than he may have at trial.
There is though some discussion of police corruption, which, as might be expected, is concerned largely with fabricating evidence against the sort of people many police officers consider don't count: drug dealers, suspected drug dealers, small time criminals or former criminals, and persons of generally low or no social standing.
The use of bogus or dubious confessions including those allegedly made to prisoners while awaiting trial is also a factor here. The most infamous and outrageous of such cases is of course that of Michael Stone, in the UK. There are ways of minimising false confession evidence though, if not eliminating it entirely. One is that as far as police officers are concerned, no confession should ever be admissible unless there is a tape running. Confessions made to prisoners should automatically be excluded unless they contain new and credible evidence; the classic example is the famous Christian burial speech, which resulted in a suspect leading police officers to where he had buried his victim, a young girl.
Those interested in miscarriages of justice - American or otherwise - would do well to give this report more than a casual once over.
The report's conclusions include the following: “The most important thing we know about false convictions is that they happen and on a regular basis...Most false convictions never see the light of day. We know only about the rare ones that are discovered and corrected (at least in part) by exoneration – and we miss many cases in which innocent defendants are exonerated, probably most...The most important goal of the criminal justice system is accuracy: to identify and condemn the guilty, and to clear the innocent. The most effective way to do so is by careful, honest and openminded work before conviction, in the investigation and prosecution of criminal charges.
The next most important task is to remain open minded after conviction about the possibility of error. The overwhelming majority of convicted defendants are guilty. Most never dispute their guilt and few ever present substantial post-conviction evidence of innocence. When that does happen, however, it should be taken seriously...For homicides, the biggest problem is perjury and false accusation, most often by supposed eyewitnesses, with official misconduct a close second. False convictions in adult rape cases, on the other hand, are primarily based on eyewitness mistakes – more often than not, mistakes by white victims falsely identifying black defendants. Most false convictions in child sex abuse cases, by contrast, are for fabricated crimes that never occurred. And so forth.”