Crime & Courts

February 13, 2011

How innocent people end up behind bars

The U.S. criminal justice system is built on a code of "better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer."

The U.S. criminal justice system is built on a code of "better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer."

Now, it seems, 266 innocent people aren't enough to prompt many states, including Kansas, to enact reforms that could limit the possibility of putting the wrong people behind bars.

The 266 people exonerated by DNA evidence illustrate cracks in the system, said Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor who has studied the cases.

"We just don't know how many other cases might be flawed," Garrett said. "And our system, for the most part, isn't responding."

In studying DNA exonerations, Garrett found:

* 79 percent were convicted on mistaken eyewitness testimony.

* 57 percent were convicted on inaccurate forensic testing, such as blood and hair analysis.

* 18 percent were convicted on false reports from police informants.

* 16 percent confessed to crimes they didn't commit.

Frequently, people were convicted on more than one type of evidence.

Reform has proven slow and ineffective.

Kansas is among 48 states that passed laws providing defendants access to DNA testing following a conviction. Still, prosecutors frequently fight testing, and judges use narrow readings of the law to deny relief.

"And that still happens in states that have good post-conviction DNA statutes," Garrett said.

Most of the time, evidence that could yield DNA is destroyed. Kansas is among 18 states without laws requiring preservation of evidence.

"Even today, well into the DNA age, you still have a lot of jurisdictions with no protocols to make sure crucial crime-scene evidence is preserved," Garrett said.

Only 10 states have laws dealing with eyewitness identification — the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Kansas isn't one of them.

Some states are reacting.

Lawmakers in North Carolina became the nation's first to enact an independent court body empowered to investigate claims of innocence: the Innocence Inquiry Commission.

Rhode Island legislators ordered a task force to study problems of eyewitness identification. Its findings formed bills that would change police procedures.

In other states, courts are trying to fix their problems.

Supreme courts in Iowa and five other states mandated recording of interrogations to protect police and reduce coerced confessions.

New Jersey's high court ordered a review of eyewitness testimony, leading to changes in the rules for using it in a trial.

The U.S. Supreme Court has left it up to individual states to determine which remedies to offer those who claim innocence.

"Our criminal justice system is so fragmented," Garrett said, "that unless our state legislatures start passing more statutes, these problems may continue to reoccur."


Related stories:

Is convicted murderer really a victim?

Dallas DA established unit to look into old cases


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