Wrongful Convictions

Wrongful Convictions Demand Justice Reform

One of our country’s biggest problems has nothing to do with unemployment, abortions, or the wars on terror; It exists here in the flaws of our courts

By Chelsea Moore | Posted Thursday April 5, 2012, at 3:12 PM ET

It’s hard to imagine that someone as happy and easy-going as Bill Dillon spent nearly three decades behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Bill Dillon, who stands just over six-feet-tall, exudes all of the joy of the Jolly Green Giant, will nothing more than a McDonald’s latté in his hand. But when he begins to tell his stories, some of the light seeps out of his eyes, and you begin see the trials that he has endured.

“Most don’t make it,” Dillon says of other wrongfully incarcerated people. “They go insane, and that’s what they were hoping for with me. They were hoping I’d kill myself or kill someone else.” William “Bill” Dillon is one of the people who suffered as a result of the tremendous flaws in our justice system. Dillon served 28 years in prison for a murder that he did not commit.

There exists today a delusion that crime, and solving crime, is rather simple. We’ve all seen one of the many legal dramas that exist all across television these days. CSI, CSI: Insert-City-Here, Cold Case, Law and Order, the list could go on and on.

These shows depict law enforcement going around and cleaning up the streets, putting guilty people behind bars for the heinous, albeit fictional, crimes that they commit. These shows create and perpetuate the idea that if murder-rape cases can be solved within an hour, then all crime must be equally simple. While it would certainly be nice if the authorities always got the perpetrator and did so in a matter of days, that is not reality. Police officers make mistakes, eyewitnesses misidentify suspects, and innocent people end up in jail. Bill Dillon’s case is only one example of the complications, and miscarriages of justice, that occur within the real criminal justice system.

In 1981 Dillon was convicted of the murder of James Dvorak. The police had no concrete evidence linking Dillon to the crime, and little circumstantial evidence. During his trial, the prosecution’s case relied almost exclusively on four key witnesses: an admitted perjurer, a fraudulent expert witness who claims that his dogs can trace scents years after crimes take place, an informant whose charges were dropped in return for his testimony, and a half-blind eyewitness.

The State also presented a yellow t-shirt that was worn by the killer; Donna Parrish, the perjurer, claimed that she saw Bill wearing the t-shirt on the night of the murder. Parrish later changed her statement, telling authorities that she had made up her entire story. It was the yellow t-shirt that ultimately proved Bill’s innocence, once the DNA on the shirt was tested.

While Bill’s story is in some ways an encouraging one – he is now free, his name is cleared, and he was recently financially compensated by the State of Florida – his exoneration is not the end of the story. All exonorees face issues with post traumatic stress disorder and readjusting to what is oftentimes a completely changed world. Many of them also face troubles finding employment and thus have financial difficulties if they cannot or have to wait to receive compensation.

For Bill, some of the biggest issues were his fight to get someone to listen to and help him. “With murder, rape, you know something with a larger sentence where you’re facing 30 or 40 years you’ll fight for ten years but eventually you give up,” Dillon said of struggles to get help from behind bars. “When you write letters and no one writes back, you give up.” Dillon was an exception to this, as he fought for longer than ten years and did eventually receive the attention of the Innocence Project of Florida, who ultimately helped him to secure his DNA testing and prove his innocence.

289 innocent people have been exonerated in the United States since 1989, according to the Innocence Project, a New York based non-profit that provides legal help to wrongfully convicted people. The movement to discover these wrongful convictions became a nationwide force when DNA testing became possible.

The advent of DNA testing and its prevalent use in the criminal justice system have changed the legal system tremendously. Proving a defendant’s guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt becomes exceedingly possible when there is DNA evidence to prove it. That said, the technology has changed the system, but the system has not made the necessary changes to take advantage of the technology. As the Innocence Project (NY) points out, “DNA exonerations do not solve the problem, they provide scientific proof of its existence and they illuminate the need for reform.”

The illumination of these issues within the criminal justice system has sparked the creation of numerous organizations that seek to aid and free the wrongfully convicted, such as the litany of other Innocence Projects that exist around the country. A good deal of research has also been conducted; social scientists and attorneys have sought to discover what the major causes of wrongful convictions are, and have compiled a list of the most prevalent causes.

In January the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that eyewitness evidence requires no extra cautions or inquiry to make it admissible. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion of the court and in the decision said that there is no reason to treat eyewitness identification as any different from other potentially flawed evidence. The opinion states, only when “there is ‘a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification,’ the judge must disallow presentation of the evidence at trial.”

The truth is that there is always a very substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification. Eyewitness misidentifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions; they play a role in approximately 75 percent of wrongful convictions and there are 30 years of social science evidence proving that eyewitnesses often make mistakes, according to the Innocence Project.

This new opinion of the Supreme Court does not bring about any new or insightful decisions regarding eyewitness testimony. The Court’s opinion relies exclusively on precedent, or the decisions in other US Supreme Court cases. This decision keeps the due process test for evidence restricted only to errors made by law enforcement officers.

While Ginsburg said that eyewitness testimony is no different than any other potentially flawed testimony, that is simply false. Eyewitness testimony is different than other types of evidence. Humans, especially those under pressure, make mistakes. Further, this opinion seems to ignore the weight with which eyewitness identifications are held by most juries. These identifications tend to be extremely convincing with juries, and as a result held as more reliable or valuable than other evidence. These facts show that eyewitness IDs are in fact different than other types of testimony and evidence, and should be treated as such.

The Court’s opinion further explains that in hearing this case they sought “to resolve a division of opinion on the question whether the Due Process Clause requires a trial judge to conduct a preliminary assessment of the reliability of an eyewitness identification made under suggestive circumstances not arranged by the police.” As we all know, the legal system is riddled with overly complex language, so to understand what this means let’s step back and look at the story behind this case.

Around 3 a.m. on August 15, 2008, the police department in a small New Hampshire town received a call reporting that an African-American male was trying to break into cars parked in the lot of the caller’s apartment. Nubia Blandon was the woman who made the call, and after the police arrived she was asked to describe the man she saw. Instead of describing him she pointed out of her window to a man in the parking lot that the police had in handcuffs. That man was Barion Perry, a man who was eventually convicted for breaking into the cars.

The issue that stood before the court was, as mentioned above, a matter of due process. This inclusion of this identification in trial, Barion and his attorney’s felt, would bias the jury to the point that they would listen to no other evidence and would convict Barion no matter what. When Nubia Blandon’s identified him, Barion was already handcuffed and he was the only African-American male in the area. As this identification was made under suggestive circumstances, it is even less reliable than an eyewitness identification made under non suggestive circumstances.

Now in laymen’s terms, the Supreme Court was deciding whether a trial court has to look at eyewitness evidence before trial and determine whether a witness identification was made under suggestive circumstances if those circumstances were not arranged by law enforcement. The court decided that no, only eyewitness identifications that were potentially tainted by the actions of police officers had the potential to violate due process. But, seeing that even eyewitness identifications made under the best of circumstances are frequently flawed it seems only logical to conclude that some assessment of eyewitness reliability should occur. Police misconduct is not the only reason that eyewitnesses make mistakes, so a court system that only acknowledges those mistakes is one that is destined to put innocent people in prison.

The court’s decision also highlights the fact that the Constitution precludes defendants from convictions based on unreliable evidence not by refusing to admit that evidence but instead by providing them the means to persuade a jury of the unreliable nature of that evidence. Here we must return to the fact that juries look at eyewitness testimony as exceedingly compelling; as a result this sort of evidence must be treated with the utmost caution.

Moreover, the aforementioned social science and America’s more than two-decade-long experience with DNA exonerations, demonstrate that the due process standards announced in Neil and Manson are simply inadequate to weed out bad IDs before trial and that juries just don’t have the knowledge or skill set to discount them during trial. Thus, under the current regime upheld in this case, defendants have a very small chance of preventing the jury from hearing an identification or being able to convince a jury of the invalidity of eyewitness testimony once it comes in.

One of the big issues in this case dealt with the jury’s right to weigh the credibility of witnesses against one another, a tenant that our legal system is based upon. Would instituting a rule requiring judges to complete pretrial screenings of eyewitness evidence every time an eyewitness identification impinge on the jury’s right to determine the weight and reliability of the testimony themselves? The Supreme Court seems to think so, yet based on empirical social science research it seems unfair to allow unchecked eyewitness testimony into the courts on such a broad scale. The opinion addresses the use of jury instructions to institute a level of fairness into the use of eyewitness identifications, but again the evidence shows that this testimony has an exceptionally powerful impact on juries.

A number of possible remedies for this issue have been discussed within the justice system since DNA testing began to reveal the prevalence of wrongful convictions. One such remedy is the use of expert witnesses in explaining to a jury the issues with eyewitness identifications. In early February the Florida Innocence Commission, a task force put together by the Florida Supreme Court, debated including a separate jury instruction for cases with eyewitness as well as changing pretrial rules to ensure that prosecutor’s would have to disclose all information about their eyewitness to the defense attorneys.

Justice Sonia Sotoymayor dissented from the court’s opinion, and her dissent echoes all of the above issues. Sotomayor summarized these by saying, “This Court has long recognized that eyewitness identifications’ unique confluence of features—their unreliability, susceptibility to suggestion, powerful impact on the jury, and resistance to the ordinary tests of the adversarial process—can undermine the fairness of a trial.”

Unfortunately, Sotomayor’s opinion was not the majority opinion of the court, and the status quo set forth by preceding cases remains, leaving eyewitness identifications as largely admissible in spite of their tendency to hinder the justice system.

The real question is what does this mean for the reform of identification procedures and law surrounding identifications sought by the Innocence Movement. Will law enforcement, prosecutors and courts simply point to Perry and say, “Well, the Supreme Court doesn’t think there is a problem so why should we?” Only time will tell.

The Innocence Project also names faulty science, such as examining bite marks or shoe prints, false confessions, informants or snitches, bad lawyering, and police or prosecutorial misconduct as causes for the great number of wrongful convictions that occur in the United States.

If the social science and facts don’t prove that our criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed, then Dillon’s stories, along with those of the other 288 exonerees nationwide, provide to undeniable, human proof. The system as it stands is broken, and Innocence Projects, volunteers, and other pro bono attorneys working to free wrongfully convicted people is not the answer. To change this problem we have to start from the bottom up and correct the system. We have to create rules and procedures for police to conduct their investigations, particularly with regard to preserving evidence and performing witness identification lineups. We have to change the way that the courts look at certain types of evidence, and the ways that juries are instructed to look at them. The road will not be an easy one, and politics and egos oftentimes get in the way. But until this system is corrected, innocent men and women will continue to waste away behind bars.

Advertisements

The creative portfolio of journalist Chelsea Moore

%d bloggers like this: