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The innocence Project
Alex Steffen, 15 May 04

Justice, like transparency, is one of those values so basic to the proper functioning of democracy we forget to talk about it. But even in countries with supposedly well-established and effective legal systems (like the U.S.), gross miscarraiges of justice occur nearly daily, due to over-zealous prosecutors, out-dated investigative techniques and flat bigotry.

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing speak one man who's on a mission to change that: Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project is best-known for its work retesting (or all-too-frequently, testing for the first time) DNA evidence in cases where the person convicted of the crime maintains their innocence and where there is some reason to doubt their guilt. In nearly half the cases they've taken on, this DNA proves the person was wrongly convicted. Neufeld suspects there are still thousands of people rotting in American prisons, or sitting on death row, who'd be exonerated if the DNA evidence in their cases were examined (though often such evidence has been lost or destroyed since their convictions).

That's shocking enough. What I found more shocking was what Neufeld told me afterwards -- that he's suprised, given how poor police methodology and training is, that more people aren't wrongly convicted.

Take the example of the classic police line-up. We've all seen it on TV: the victim or witness behind the one-way mirror, the five or six men lined up holding numbers, the police asking "Do you see him here?" Though still widely used, line-ups are notoriously inaccurate, because the victim is likely to make a comparative judgement (this person looks more like the person who attacked me than the others, so I'll pick him). When shown suspects one at a time, and asked to make an absolute judgement ("Was this the man who attacked you?"), the victim is much more likely to make an accurate choice.

But it doesn't stop there. Cops frequently make judgements early in cases that they've found the wrong-doer, and ignore subsequent evidence that would clear that person. Better investigative documentation would prevent this. Interogations often produce false confessions. Recording those interogations would allow leading questions, coercive pressure and implied promises on the part of the police to be identfied, and flag "bad" confessions. Police informants routinely provide bad information. Developing systems to weigh the reliability of informants would flag those who routinely point the finger at the wrong person (reputation capital for snitches?), while better investigative practices would reduce the need to use them at all. A whole host of scientific insights into physical evidence, into witness memories and into human behavior in the courtroom have yet to be applied to police work in any systematic way (for example, unknown but extremely large numbers of pieces of physical evidence from unsolved crimes have never been tested for DNA, nor have the results been gathered into a national database which might help police link previously unsolved crimes together, providing new leverage for their investigations). Finally, a large number of wrongful convictions can be tied to defending lawyers who were overburdened, underpaid and sometimes grossly incompetant. Better pay, support and training of public defenders is a neccessity.

Why should average people care what happens to suspects in crimes? Well, beyond the moral issues, beyond the fact that systematic injustice undermines our legal system, and beyond the fact that a false conviction could happen to you (a surprising number of the people exonerated by the Innocence Project were middle-class or above, some were well-educated, some even had lawyers or police officers in their families), there is another reason, a reason which represents a brilliant bit of clear thought and reframing:

when they convict the wrong guy of a crime, the actual criminal is still running around out there doing crimes.

It's this angle -- avoiding false convictions as a means of crime-fighting -- which is winning the Innocence Project the support of police chiefs, law-n'-order politicians, and no-nonsense judges around the country.

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