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Rising number of exonerees reflects flaws in justice system

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Justice in Question

The legal system isn’t perfect, and sometimes innocent people go to prison.

That’s true even in Indiana, a state with its share of exonerees as evidence that justice failed the first time around. The potential for that number to rise is expanding here just as it is nationally, as a growing number of convicts hope to add their names to the list of the exonerated. They’re doing this by turning to methods that have freed others who were wrongfully convicted, as well as new issues that continue surfacing in the nation’s court system.

Attorneys and advocates may recite any number of underlying, intangible reasons - a demanding public and political pressure on police and crime-tough prosecutors, overloaded public defenders, and congested court calendars. But the practical reasons can be found with witness misidentifications, invalid or faulty forensic science, or investigative techniques that have been modified or disproven through the years.

Whatever the reason, attorneys know it all comes down to getting it right the first time, and when that doesn’t happen, cleaning up the legal or investigative mess from years or even decades before. They must look in the mirror and at the state’s system, learning from wrongful-conviction cases about how to ensure better justice in the future.

“This is very frustrating work,” said Hilary Bowe Ricks, an Indianapolis attorney who represents clients believed to have been wrongfully convicted. “It’s a very long process, and you can’t fix what happened. You can only make sure it doesn’t continue. But maybe, by doing all of this, we can show that we’re sometimes too quick to judge.”
 

Common causes

Contributing causesThe most common factors leading to wrongful convictions are eyewitness misidentifications and invalidated or improper forensics, followed by false confessions or admissions, and bad information from informants or snitches. The New York-based nonprofit Innocence Project reports that 238 people have been exonerated nationally because of post-conviction DNA testing. In Indiana, four of the five DNA exonerations have also involved witness misidentification, consistent with the national trend of that being a factor in 75 percent of wrongful-conviction cases, according to Stephen Saloom, an attorney and the Innocence Project’s policy director.

“These DNA cases give us a window into the arena of wrongful convictions and what causes them, and that goes far beyond the window through which we’re looking,” he said.

Some say the legal review process should be more like when an airplane crashes and investigators scour the wreckage to discover what went wrong and learn from the experience. Even with appellate review the courts don’t always take notice of the errors that can occur in the initial stages, a result of appeals judges not typically reconsidering a jury’s factual findings but instead focusing on procedural matters, whether the trial judge handled evidence and issues appropriately, and broader legal theories.

A Columbia Law Review article published in 2008 by University of Virginia Law professor Brandon L. Garret looked at the trials and appeals of 200 people convicted of violent crimes for which they were later exonerated because of DNA evidence. He found only 18 were granted reversals, while 67 had their appeals denied without any written ruling. In 63 cases, the appellate court’s opinion referred to the defendant’s guilt while in 12 others, the courts referred to the “overwhelming” evidence of guilt. Of the remaining cases, the appeals courts either found the defendant’s appeal without merit, or found some merit in defendant’s claims but ruled the trial court’s errors were “harmless” or unlikely to have affected the jury’s verdict.

That’s only to date, though. Even without DNA factors, emerging areas of forensic science are casting more doubt on the justice once given by juries and judges and later reviewed by higher courts. For example, one of the most recent trends leading to wrongful-conviction claims involves what’s known as “junk” forensic science, particularly in arson cases. The issue has surfaced in recent years and is becoming a more frequent claim in post-conviction cases, as well as at the trial level. These re-examinations come as many forensic disciplines face scrutiny for playing a role in wrongful convictions that have been exposed by DNA and other scientific advances.

In February 2009, the National Academy of Sciences issued a congressionally mandated report finding serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and called for major reforms. Part of that report says that in many fire cases, investigators routinely relied on indicators that were common at the time but have since become outdated and discredited by scientific research. Bottom line: Fires once thought to be arsons are now being proven to be the result of some other factor.

“That’s why to this day there are people in prison convicted on arsons that have been debunked before, after, or during their adjudication. But many are still in prison because of the scattershot nature of understanding the advance in that practice and applying it to these cases so long after the fact,” Saloom said.
 

Calls for reform

Indiana gets mixed reaction from people opining about how the state compares to others in adjudicating justice and analyzing injustice. Some say the system is ahead of the curve in various ways, while others point to it being behind nationally; still others say Indiana differs from nearby states by offering automatic post-conviction relief hearings and how appellate or postconviction courts have ways to review the trial court process. They also point to how the Indiana Supreme Court and General Assembly are exploring ways to make the system even stronger.

Saloom“My sense would be that we are definitely in the game, meaning we recognize the existence of invalid science used to convict and the appropriateness of providing common law and statutory remedies for newly discovered evidence,” said attorney and law professor Fran Watson, who leads the wrongful-conviction clinic at Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis.

Watson said several state efforts put Indiana ahead of the curve, such as the automatic post-conviction relief hearings available to convicts, the post-conviction DNA testing they can utilize, and how Indiana has a statewide public defender agency to work on post-conviction cases. She’s also encouraged by efforts the courts are making to study the wrongfulconviction causes even more.

Whether that’s enough is debatable, according to some looking at Indiana from the outside.

“When it comes to preventing wrongful convictions, virtually no jurisdiction in Indiana and certainly not the state itself has significantly implemented reform on those leading causes,” Saloom said. “That puts them slightly behind most of the country.

“The good news is that (Indiana) is talking about it, there’s general preservation practices in place, and the court is taking some of these issues seriously,” he added. “While Indiana’s slightly behind, fortunately there are indications that the state does take these issues seriously and may very soon consider taking affirmative action on those reforms.”

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  1. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  2. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  3. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

  4. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  5. This article proved very enlightening. Right ahead of sitting the LSAT for the first time, I felt a sense of relief that a score of 141 was admitted to an Indiana Law School and did well under unique circumstances. While my GPA is currently 3.91 I fear standardized testing and hope that I too will get a good enough grade for acceptance here at home. Thanks so much for this informative post.

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