Investigating Wrongful Convictions

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Since the 1980s, DNA evidence has played a crucial role in criminal convictions, and our forensic technology continues to improve; however, in spite of our technological progress, innocent men and women continue to serve time in prison for crimes they did not commit. While one would assume DNA would prove guilt or innocence, often there is a lack of physical evidence, so investigators rely on witnesses, motives, circumstantial evidence, and socioeconomic status of the alleged perpetrator to build their cases. Usually, their evidence often catches the guilty party, but, once in a while, it points to the wrong person. Wrongful convictions are rare, but they should not exist. Defense attorneys argue that our criminal justice system needs to have an overhaul to prevent further wrongful conviction cases while prosecutors and law enforcement assert false convictions are a minuscule amount, so no changes are necessary. Regardless, evidence suggests we can prevent such errors. In order to eliminate wrongful convictions, our judicial system and law enforcement agencies need to practice integrity and thoroughly investigate all resources before they rely on false confessions or unreliable witnesses. 

Defense attorneys are one of the most vocal when it comes to criticizing our flawed legal system, but there are specific agencies that specialize in exonerating innocent inmates such as the Conviction Integrity Unit. Frances Robles, the author of the article “In Review of Brooklyn Cases, So Many Obstacles,” reports that the Conviction Integrity Unit founder District Attorney Charles J. Hynes has an overwhelming amount of case files to reexamine. Specifically, the Conviction Integrity Unit will “review about four dozen murder convictions” (Robles). The majority of their caseload is due to former, and now discredited, Brooklyn detective Louis Scarcella. Scarcella’s investigatory work is under question due to recently exonerated David Ranta. 

David Ranta spent approximately 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. At the time, Scarcella believed that Ranta committed a high profile murder, but he did not have solid proof. Nevertheless, Ranta was convicted. Later it was found that Ranta spent a large portion of his life in prison because Scarcella “told a witness in the case to pick from a lineup the guy with the big nose and [he] rewarded other people who agreed to testify by letting them out of jail to visit prostitutes” (Robles). This behavior certainly lacks integrity, but it also leads one to doubt the police force. In addition, if our judicial system and juries are willing to convict without solid evidence, this suggests our courts need to make changes. Moreover, Ranta is not the only victim of this seemingly rogue detective. However, while some civil rights activists applaud the Conviction Integrity Unit, others suggest that their task will be difficult. 

DNA technology continues to progress, so many cases depend on forensics; however, the Conviction Integrity Unit usually takes on challenging cases that do not have any DNA evidence. Furthermore, Scarcella was an active police detective from 1973 until 1999, so critics claim case reviews will take an exorbitant amount of time. Lawyer Joel Rudin, one of Hynes’ critics, questions Hynes’ ability to effectively review each case. Specifically, Rudin explains “It takes hundreds of hours to fully investigate an old conviction” (Robles). Rudin’s criticism makes a valid point. One must take into consideration how long it takes to develop leads and find substantial evidence. Similarly, while committing a crime can take less than a minute, the court proceedings and investigations are often drawn out for months or even years. In cases that do not have physical evidence, investigators will have to rely on other sources such as witnesses. With this in mind, it seems investigation teams need to use other protocol when examining their witnesses because certain tactics seem unsound, specifically in Louis Scarcella’s case.

Due to Ranta’s case, the Conviction Integrity Unit has to reexamine approximately 50 homicide convictions procured by Scarcella. Scarcella played large roles in each of the convictions, and skeptics allege that he may have intentionally put innocent people in prison. Some of the convicted inmates allegedly committed their crimes years ago, so prosecutors, detectives, defense lawyers, and private investigators will have to depend on old evidence. At the same time, they have to investigate cases as though they were new. Unfortunately, in some cases, witnesses are deceased or a lot of time has passed. If it has been several years, or even months, the length of time may impair witnesses’ recollections. 

Witnesses’ testimonies are often valid in criminal cases, but, once in a while, there is the chance that they are unreliable. An unreliable witness does not necessarily mean the witness is untrustworthy. Rather, “eye witness misidentification is caused by natural psychological errors in human judgment” (Gould and Leo 841). In other words, surviving victims of violent crimes are afraid and they may not focus on perpetrators but on their weapons. In addition, if the victim and the attacker are different races, the victim’s images of facial features or skin color may become convoluted. On the other hand, some witnesses may talk for only their benefit. As an illustration, in 1986, James Jenkins was arrested and found guilty due to less than credible witness testimony. Much later, Jenkins found out that Scarcella accompanied one of the key witnesses in his case to the assistant district attorney’s office and that the witness had his own murder charge to deal with. Therefore, it seems that “the witness got a secret deal to testify” (Robles).  Incidentally, Scarcella’s relationships with witnesses are one of the many reasons Brooklyn will retry Jenkin’s case and others.  Witnesses often have to view line ups or photo arrays, so perhaps the investigators can use a system in which someone not affiliated with the case can supervise or question the witness. This way, there will be an objective decision based on whether or not the witness seems credible. In addition, the investigation team is not able to suggest in any way who they believe is guilty. However, along with inaccurate witness testimony, sometimes suspects trap themselves and offer false confessions. 

Because the evidence varies in violent or high profile cases, investigators try to elicit confessions that corroborate what they believe happened. Authors Jon B. Gould and Richard A. Leo discovered in their essay “One Hundred Years Later: Wrongful Convictions After a Century of Research”, there are usually “three errors [that] occur in sequence when police elicit a false confession,” and when they determine that a suspect is guilty before proof, it is their first error in judgment (Gould and Leo 845). Secondly, after they label a person guilty, investigators often resort to aggressive questioning. Their tones are accusatory and meant to produce a confession, but researchers suggest false confessions are the byproduct of investigatory teams’ “psychological coercion” (Gould and Leo 844). In other words, some suspects are easily manipulated because they simply are tired or believe if they tell the police what they want to hear, they will let them go. After all, guiltless people know they are innocent, so they may assume that others will realize that they have no evidence, and they cannot charge them. Nevertheless, once a suspect offers information that implies guilt, some investigators will continue to mold or, in some cases, lead the confession. In order to alleviate any doubt, investigators should record and play the entire confession for an outside party. In this way, they are held accountable for their roles in false confessions. At any rate, an innocent person’s conviction only means the actual criminal continues to roam the streets. 

Research suggests that mistakes in wrongful convictions often repeat themselves, so investigators should look to their past in order to prevent any similar mistakes. For example, when questioning a suspect, the investigator relies on previous training to decipher suspicious behavior. However, part of their training leads police officers to believe that they are “human lie detectors” (Gould and Leo 845). They attribute certain body language such as looking away or fidgeting as suspicious, or if a suspect is uncooperative, police officers equate that with guilt. However, “most people accurately make these types of judgments at rates no better than the flip of a coin” (Gould and Leo 845). Because police officers rely on their intuition, they mistakenly focus on one’s behavior than actual evidence.  Subsequently, those errors usually lead police to focus on the wrong person. Granted, law enforcement has to take into account certain behaviors, but perhaps an innocent person’s suspicious behavior is due to stress. Inevitably, this leads investigators to make their third error. Otherwise known as the “post-admission of interrogation,” investigators will suggest what they believe happened and advise the suspect to follow along or add (Gould and Leo 849). Consequently, investigators should have an unrelated person supervise their questioning and ask them to stop once they began leading suspects. Because once a suspect provides a confession, false or not, it will be especially difficult to convince a court to reconsider his or her guilt.

Ultimately, the element of guilt naturally taints the innocent inmate. While judges often base exonerations on “procedural error…[or] factual innocence,” procedural error does not necessarily mean someone else committed the crime (Gould and Leo 832). Rather, law enforcement may taint the case if they violate one’s fundamental rights. On the other hand, factual innocence suggests someone other than the convicted committed the crime.  While some contend that “procedural error” is not just cause for alarm, Gould and Leo assert that it “is a signal that the criminal justice system has failed…[and] the failure is more troubling when the system convicts a person who is factually innocent” (833). Nevertheless, even if innocent inmates’ verdicts are overturned, the majority of newly freed prisoners find it hard, if not impossible, to get back on their feet. 

Obviously, innocent inmates suffer enormously while in prison, but their release may be even more troubling. In Jack Healy’s article “Wrongfully Convicted Often Find Their Record, Unexpunged, Haunts Them” Audrey Edmunds allegedly caused the death of an infant in her care, but “a mountain of new medical evidence cast so much doubt on the case that a higher court overturned her conviction and set her free” (Healy). Unfortunately, her background checks cause prospective employers to overlook or dismiss her, so it seems that “harms of erroneous prosecutions and convictions go even deeper” (Gould and Leo 836).  When they are finally released, the innocent inmates contend with practical matters such as finding shelter, jobs, therapy, and financial support. Most employers require background checks, and it is reasonable to expect that they would not want to hire criminals. Therefore, the exonerated inmates have to deal with a great deal more after their sentence. 

While our judicial system strives to put dangerous criminals in jail, they must consider every innocent person in jail means a dangerous person is free. Not only are they free to commit similar crimes, but they may feel encouraged to do so since they got away with a crime. While law enforcement is probably under their own stress to solve cases, they need to objectively investigate their sources. It is unfathomable that false confessions and unreliable witnesses can send an innocent person to prison. While the majority of us have had feelings based on our intuitions, our intuitions do not, normally, ruin someone’s life. 

Works Cited

Gould, Jon B., and Richard A. Leo. "One Hundred Years Later: Wrongful Convictions After a Century of Research." Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 100.3 (2010): 825-68. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 May 2013.

Healy, Jack. "Wrongfully Convicted Often Find Their Record, Unexpunged, Haunts Them." New York Times., 5 May 2013. Web. 30 May 2013. <>.

Robles, Frances. "In Review of Brooklyn Cases, So Many Obstacles." The New York Times., 23 May 2013. Web. 30 May 2013. <>.