Wrongful Convictions: A Cancer on the U.S. Justice System

When I went to the conference on wrongful convictions held by the Northwestern Law School in the latter 1990s, there were about 75 people, almost all men, who had been released from Death Row, or a life sentence, because of conclusive evidence of innocence, serious prosecutorial misconduct, or some other compelling circumstance. About 30 of the exonerated were at the conference and a number of them spoke about their experiences. At the time, I couldn’t begin to contemplate that the 75 were likely a small cohort of those wrongfully convicted and still in prison.

In his book, Convicting the Innocent, University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett described his examination of the first 250 DNA exonerations and identified eyewitness misidentification as the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Garrett extrapolated from the fact that DNA evidence applies to only a small percentage of all criminal cases and he took into account the extreme difficulty of freeing those wrongfully convicted of a serious crime, and estimated that 20,000 wrongfully convicted might be inmates in U.S. prisons.

On May 21, 2012, the University of Michigan Law School, in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, released the first ever National Registry of Exonerations, counting 891 exonerations since 1989, the year of the first exoneration achieved using DNA. With the use of a much larger database than Professor Garrett had, University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross found that perjury or false accusation is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Some of the Registry findings were that the exonerated spent an average of 11 years in prison; ten people were exonerated posthumously or died in prison; and roughly 50 percent of the cases involved African-Americans.

Gross believes that the cases in the Registry database are just the tip of the iceberg, as he estimates a wrongful conviction rate of up to four percent among violent felonies. Gross’es estimate might be exceedingly low, as when then-Virginia Governor Mark Warner ordered a review of thousands of cases over the 15-year span before DNA testing was available, the review, recently completed, revealed an error rate of about six percent. Extrapolating to the whole U.S. prison population, this would mean that 136,000 people are unjustly incarcerated.

           Florida Governor Kills Innocence Commission

Among all those holding high office today, Florida Governor Rick Scott is proving to be the one who is doing the most to keep the prison doors closed to the wrongfully convicted and non-violent drug addicts. Scott vetoed the $200,000 earmarked for the Innocence Commission created in 2009 “to conduct a comprehensive study of the causes of wrongful convictions and measures to prevent such convictions.” In April 2012, Scott vetoed a bill intended to help non-violent drug addicts in state prisons to recover. He said that justice to victims of crime is not served by releasing a criminal early from a sentence.

The state of Florida is not immune from the great crime of convicting innocent people of very serious crimes. James Bain became the 12th exonoree since 2001, when Florida passed a statute permitting cases to be reopened by DNA testing. Bain served 35 years for a kidnapping and rape he did not commit.

A Palm Beach Post study done 12 years ago found that the death penalty cost Florida taxpayers about $50 million. Illinois was found to have spent $214 million for 85 wrongful convictions.

The real victims of Florida’s Governor Scott are Joe and Jane Taxpayer.

Florida Governor Rick Scott is rapidly cementing a reputation as perhaps the most destructive governor of a big population state in U.S. history. In a prior blog I chronicled how Scott was trying to disenfranchise thousands of likely Democratic party voters — over 180,000 total voters in the initial purge attempt — by questioning their citizenship. In a companion measure of his, he is trying to make it prohibitively difficult for individuals or groups to register voters by greatly restricting the time to turn in names and imposing a heavy fine for every person subsequently found to be ineligible to vote.

A caller to a radio talk show exposed Scott for the sanctimonious fraud he is. She was especially angry because the person who was challenging her right to vote was integrally involved in a billion dollar scheme to defraud the Medicare program. When questioned under oath, Scott took the Fifth Amendment 78 times.



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