By Elizabeth Wong, Associate DirectorLast week, Thomas Haynesworth finally got the justice he deserved after serving 27 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit—a writ of actual innocence. I’d like to think his wrongful conviction is an extremely rare situation. However, he is one of 280 people – and counting – in the U.S. who was exonerated by DNA evidence after his conviction. And perhaps more disheartening is research estimating that wrongful conviction is the story of potentially tens of thousands of people in America.
We’re taught in school that the American justice system is first-rate because there are checks in place to ensure that innocent people don’t go to jail and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Television shows and movies also suggest that the science behind many crime-solving techniques is irrefutable. But, the reality of our criminal justice system is that it is far from perfect.
There are many causes for wrongful convictions, including misidentification by eyewitnesses, faulty forensic science and false confessions. These may seem like rare individualized hiccups in the justice system, the kind that any system run by human beings is going to have. That, however, is not the case.
In 75% of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., eyewitness misidentification testimony was a factor in the original guilty finding. Moreover, many of those cases involve cross race identifications, which studies have shown are even less reliable.
While depicting forensic science as the irrefutable truth and suggesting that evidence never lies, Hollywood overlooks the murkier, interpretive side of science. For example, techniques involving fingerprints, shoe impressions, hair analysis or bite marks have never been rigorously evaluated. The imprecision of fingerprinting became more evident when Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield was falsely arrested and imprisoned for the Madrid train bombing based on a fingerprint that was believed to be his, but wasn’t.
In about 25% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements or falsely confessed to crimes. It might seem strange that people would confess to crimes they didn’t commit, but they do. Faced with incriminating evidence and the possibility of lengthy prison sentences, defendants sometimes plead guilty to avoid the uncertainties (and costs) of a trial and to obtain a guaranteed lesser sentence through plea bargaining.
In 2007, this was precisely the scenario that Edgar Coker, Jr. and his parents found themselves in when 15-year-old Coker was accused of raping his 14-year-old friend. Stuck in a he-said-she-said case and afraid that their son would face adult charges and a lengthy prison sentence, Coker’s parents took the advice of their attorney and told their son to plead guilty to the rape. Two months later, the girl admitted she lied, but it was too late to turn back the clock. Coker was incarcerated for 17 months.
And, he is still on the sex-offender registry for a crime that never occurred. That’s right, five years after being wrongfully convicted Mr. Coker is still in court fighting to have his conviction vacated and his name taken off the sex-offender registry.
So what can the wrongfully convicted do to clear their names? Certainly there must be a better way than what currently exists. It shouldn’t be so difficult for a young man who never committed a crime to have his conviction overturned or be removed from a sex offender registry.
In Virginia, after years of lobbying by criminal justice reform advocates, state legislators in 2001 passed a law allowing the courts to grant a writ of actual innocence based on biological evidence. It wasn’t until 2004 that the law was expanded to allow for writs based on non-biological evidence. While much needed reforms have been enacted in the last decade, there is still much that can be done to improve our system.
The laws governing who can apply for writs are overly restrictive. Those applying for writs based on biological evidence must have been convicted of a felony, and only under some circumstances can they have pled guilty.
The restrictions are greater for applicants for writs based on non-biological evidence. Those applicants must have been convicted of a felony and under no circumstance have pled guilty. Moreover, applicants for writs using non-biological evidence who fail in their first attempt cannot try again, even in cases where someone else confesses to the crime.
Given the myriad ways by which people can be wrongfully convicted, justice would be better served if more post-conviction remedies existed. For example, pleading guilty for whatever reason should not preclude people from being exonerated when evidence supports their innocence. Additionally, convicted persons deserve more than one chance to clear their records.
The Bill of Rights tells us what makes up a fair trial, but it doesn’t guarantee that one will occur in each and every case. We can’t – and shouldn’t—stop using eyewitnesses or fingerprints or juries. But we can realize that human beings, even those looking at hard scientific data, make mistakes. And when they do, justice should be simple and swift to correct itself.