The United States judicial system is in charge of convicting criminals and protecting the innocent. Thousands of criminals are convicted a year in the U.S. Most Americans want to believe that their criminal justice system is fair. However, wrongful convictions have a rate of 1 percent that would translate to 20,000 people serving sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. Recent advances in forensic science have been cleaning up the amount of wrongful convictions. Before modern forensic science, it was much easier to be convicted when innocent but cases still pop up today where the innocent are deemed guilty. Currently the number of wrongful convictions is too high, and forensic technology needs to be advanced to ensure just conviction.
History Behind The Issue
In 1923, Judge Learned Hand said that the American judicial system “has always been haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.” Research began almost a decade after Judge Learned Hand made this statement. Over time and with the help of new technology, extreme numbers of wrongfully convicted people have served sentences, and even have been put to death for crimes they did not commit.
Research into this topic did not exist until a Yale Professor by the name of Edward Borchard published a book “Convicting the Innocent” in 1932. This book gave information which documented 65 cases, addressed the causes of wrongful convictions, and offered suggestions for reform. Since then, researchers came to the conclusion that wrongful convictions is a vast problem within the American criminal justice system, and the American judicial process.
Despite the evidence given by researchers on wrongful convictions, the American people didn’t believe any of it. In 1987, the ignorant American people finally opened their eyes when an article “The Execution Of The Innocent” was published by Micheal L. Radelet and Hugo A. Bedau. The public’s attention was grabbed by the notion that the “unreal dream” of an innocent man convicted was a harsh subjective reality. This article helped prove the miscarriages in the criminal justice system as well as the judicial process.
When the age of DNA testing dawned, it elevated the issue of wrongful convictions. Gary Dotson became the first prisoner to be exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence in August, 1989 after being accused of kidnap and rape. Dotson served 10 years before being released. DNA and Gary Dotson’s case started the movement that has overturned more than 300 convictions. Researchers will most likely never know exactly how many innocent defendants have lost their lives, and/or served time due to wrongful convictions.
“Public confidence in the judicial system is undermined, innocent people suffer, and public safety is compromised because for every person wrongfully convicted there is a real criminal who may still be roaming the streets”(Huff, 2002; Zalman, Larson, & Smith, 2012).
The death penalty is a key reason to why wrongful convictions are being seen at the Judicial Branch. Judges, such as Judge Jed S. Rakoff is rethinking the death penalty because there is a chance the person they are putting to death may be innocent. Rakoff stated, “I continue to think that the process is deeply flawed. It posits a very high likelihood that no innocent person is convicted, which I no longer believe to be true.” Along with Judge Rakoff, Federal Judge Michael Ponsor said “A legal regime relying on the death penalty will inevitably execute innocent people - not too often, one hopes, but undoubtedly sometimes. Mistakes will be made because it is simply not possible to do something this difficult perfectly, all the time. Any honest proponent of capital punishment must face this fact.”
The history of wrongful convictions has led to what it is today. It is far from perfect, but over more time and development of technology, less innocent people will be serving time for crimes they did not commit.
A recent hit on Netflix, “Making a Murderer” is about Steven Avery, a young man from Wisconsin. He was found guilty of rape and was sent to prison. After serving time for eighteen years, he was released when DNA evidence proved he was innocent, as he told everyone the whole time.
Two years after his release, Avery was about to sue the county and local officials for his wrongful conviction, but instead he was arrested for the murder of a local photographer. Avery once again told them he was innocent, but he was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide and is serving life in prison with no chance of parole. Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew who resided next door to him, allegedly took part in the murder, was also sentenced to life but will be eligible for parole in 2048.
Although “Making a Murderer” came out in 2016, it actually took place in the 80’s. The first part of the show is about Avery’s first arrest and his trial. The rest of the episodes talk about the photographers murder and the trial followed.
Dassey has an IQ of 70, and he also reads at a 4th-grade level. The interview with the police then led to his confession and his arrest. Dassey then recanted his confession in court, and his lawyers argued that he didn’t know or understand what he was doing or what the consequences would be because he had learning disabilities.
Many theories were made when Avery was sentenced to prison. Was he set up? Was evidence tampered with? Was this payback for trying to sue? Was Dassey’s confession coerced? All of these questions are factors that play into wrongful convictions today too.
This case is a current controversy because it just recently got in the media due to the show. Avery still sits in prison and was trying to work on an appeal when Obama was in office. Nothing has been updated recently.
How Can This Issue Be Solved
The best and most efficient way to help cut the numbers of wrongful convictions is through science. Groups such as The Innocence Project have advocated and made real impacts in the way the police and courts go about convicting people. These groups have gotten the forensic technique of “hair comparison evidence” to be completely terminated. This technique was used up until 2013 and was basically just the comparison of two alike hairs. The FBI admitted that the technique was scientifically invalid after its agents had used it in over tens of thousands of cases. A review of the process found that microscopic hair analysis could not scientifically distinguish one specific individual. Now courts have to rely on more hardier scientific methods like DNA and blood.
Science isn’t always the answer however. Out of all of the wrongful convictions twenty five percent are due to false confessions. To fix this problem all interrogations should be recorded to validate that the interrogator did not persuade the suspect to give a specific answer or confession. In the end advances through science and improvements will help make the innocent man stay out of jail for crimes they did not commit.
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