The Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization committed to aiding wrongly convicted people, asserting their innocence, and overturning their convictions. Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld at Yeshiva University in New York founded the Innocence Project in 1992. It began as way for offenders to avail themselves of DNA technology—not available at the time of their convictions—to overturn their convictions and seek exoneration.
The Innocence Project is staffed by lawyers and law students committed to rooting out wrongful convictions and reforming the legal and scientific methods that lead to miscarriages of justice.
Since its inception, the Innocence Project has spread nationally, with other American law schools and lawyers taking on the cause, and internationally as well. In Canada, the UBC law school and Osgoode Hall Law School have started their own programs.
How is it that people get wrongly convicted?
The Innocence Project website lists six reasons for why people are wrongly convicted.
1. Junk science
Not all “scientific” techniques used to convict people have been developed in research labs or have undergone scrutiny and rigorous testing like DNA analysis. All sorts of techniques are used to convict people, including hair analysis, shoe print analysis, and bite mark comparisons. These ways of connecting people to crimes are not the most trustworthy, but can appear very convincing.
Like in most disciplines, scientists do not always agree on the meaning of certain evidence. Sometimes the difference in opinion can mean the difference between an acquittal and a conviction.
In Canada, Steven Truscott was convicted of sexually assaulting Lynne Harper in 1959 because the scientific expert at his trial put the time of her death within half an hour of Truscott having been seen with her. In 2007, the Ontario Court of Appeal accepted that this expert’s findings and opinion were scientifically unsupportable and quashed the conviction.
2. Bad lawyering
Sometimes people plead guilty or are convicted because they have a bad lawyer on their case.
One article I read about Brian Banks in the U.S. stated he was told to plead no contest to raping and kidnapping a high school acquaintance because the plea deal he was offered was too good to pass up and the chances of running a trial and being convicted were too high. If this is indeed the case, then this is bad lawyering. A criminal defence lawyer should stand between his or her client and the prosecuting authorities and shield him or her from prosecuting authorities eager to secure a conviction and move on.
3. Eyewitness testimony
Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable and convincing. The human mind is not a tape recorder and various influences can change what we see and what we think we’ve seen.
The problem with eyewitness testimony is that it often comes from people that fervently believe what they have seen and testify in an honest, open, and credible manner. Unfortunately, this testimony is not always reliable.
In 1989, the State of Texas put Carlos DeLuna to death for raping and murdering Wanda Lopez. Eyewitness testimony put DeLuna at the scene of the crime. Now, researchers at Columbia University have uncovered evidence that suggest it was not DeLuna that murdered Lopez, but rather his look-a-like, Carlos Hernandez. It turns out the resemblance between Carlos Hernandez and Carlos DeLuna was so similar that even DeLuna’s sister and defence lawyer mistook a photo of Hernandez for DeLuna.
The Innocence Project lists “informants” as a cause for wrongful convictions. Often the details of the informant are not disclosed to the jury—such as whether or not the informant was paid, has criminal convictions, had a motive to lie, et cetera.
5. Government misconduct
Sometimes instead of championing the pursuit of truth and justice, police and Crown counsel get tunnel vision and seek convictions. Sometimes the Crown forgets that it is important to disclose all possibly relevant information to defence counsel to aid in their defence.
In Steven Truscott’s case, it turns out there was a lot of disclosure that was not made to defence that could have been used to challenge the Crown’s case. In 1959, the rules of disclosure were not as clear as they are now, but it is precisely because Crown cannot be the judge of what may be useful to defence counsel’s case that the law has developed principles advocating broad disclosure.
6. False confessions
The techniques used to interrogate suspects in criminal cases raise the spectre of false confessions. The ease with which a false confession can be elicited is startling and disturbing. Our understanding of why and how people come to make false confessions is only slowly starting to be discussed in academic circles.
In Canada in the last 20 years, our laws concerning the voluntariness of statements and admissions have been dealt a devastating blow. Evidence of a statement or admission made almost invariably goes in at trial unless defence can meet the high standard of showing that threats or promises were made to encourage the admission or the accused person did not have an operating mind.
Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. The column’s writers, Laurel Dietz and Nancy Seto, are criminal defence lawyers at Cobb St. Pierre Lewis. You can send your questions for the column to them at email@example.com.
A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.