Innocence Project (Forensic Science)
The Innocence Project asserts that the wrongful convictions uncovered by the organization’s work indicate that the American criminal justice system is in need of reform. Toward that end, the Innocence Project is involved in developing policy to strengthen the criminal justice system by addressing such issues as prisoner access to postconviction DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) analysis, evidence preservation, eyewitness identification reform, crime lab oversight, compensation for those who have been exonerated, and the creation of a national criminal justice reform commission. In witness witness was sitting inside a police car positioned hundreds of feet away from the alleged perpetrator. In another case, a witness was shown an assortment of photos from which the witness identified a person as the perpetrator of the crime, but it was later revealed that the police had placed a mark on one of the photos in the assortment to indicate to the witness which suspect the police believed was the perpetrator. Other cases have been uncovered in which witnesses changed their descriptions of perpetrators after the witnesses were given information about particular suspects.
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False Confessions and False Witness Testimony (Forensic Science)
In more than 25 percent of the cases of wrongful conviction overturned by the Innocence Project, the innocent defendants made incriminating statements or pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit. It is difficult to understand why anyone would confess to a crime he or she did not commit, but research has shown that some false confessions may be attributable to the fact that some people, particularly those with mental disabilities and disorders, may be persuaded or manipulated relatively easily into agreeing with authority figures. Individuals who have been subjected to lengthy interrogations will sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit as a means to put an end to their discomfort; often they do so believing that they will be able to prove their innocence later. In addition, police interrogators sometimes tell suspects that the only way they can avoid the death penalty is to confess to the crimes of which they are being accused.
Some people are wrongfully convicted because of false testimony given by others. In more than 15 percent of the Innocence Project cases that have been overturned through new DNA evidence, so-called jailhouse informants testified against the defendants. Such informants may have many different reasons to fabricate testimony. The Innocence Project has overturned convictions of people who were convicted based on the testimony of individuals who were paid by the...
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Misinterpretation or Misrepresentation of Forensic Evidence (Forensic Science)
In some cases, convictions overturned by the Innocence Project were based on various forms of scientific and technical evidence (such as blood typing, hair comparison, bite marks, and ballistics) that lack the scientific certainty of DNA evidence. In one case, a scientific expert witness told the jury that biological evidence matched a defendant’s blood type but did not mention that this same biological evidence also matched the blood type of 41 percent of the general public. In another case, a bite mark was incorrectly matched to a defendant, with the result that he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Another person was wrongfully convicted when the jury was told that hair evidence matched the hair of the defendant and that the hair evidence could belong to only one in ten thousand people, even though this assertion was statistically impossible to prove.
The Innocence Project has also exonerated people who were wrongfully convicted because forensic scientists falsely testified, exaggerated their statistics, or engaged in laboratory fraud. It was uncovered that a former director of the West Virginia state crime lab fabricated results, lied in court about results, and willfully omitted evidence from his reports. This expert testified for the prosecution at trials in twelve states over the course of his career—more than a dozen cases in West Virginia alone. In Chicago, a lab...
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Incompetent Counsel (Forensic Science)
Many critics have asserted that the criminal justice system in the United States is economically biased against the poor, and this bias is exacerbated when indigent suspects are assigned incompetent or overburdened legal representation. In some of the worst cases taken on by the Innocence Project, convictions have been overturned because lawyers slept in the courtroom during trial, were disbarred shortly after finishing death penalty cases, failed to investigate their defendants’ alibis, failed to call or consult experts on forensic issues, or failed to show up for hearings.
In one case in which a man was accused of the brutal rape of an eight-year-old girl, the defense attorney performed no investigation, filed no pretrial motions, gave no opening statement, provided no expert to refute the testimony of the state’s hair microscopy expert (which was later found to be fraudulent), did not prepare closing arguments, and filed no appeal. The defendant was convicted and spent fifteen years in prison before the Innocence Project was able to use DNA evidence to prove that he did not commit the crime.
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Junkin, Tim. Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 2004. Relates the experiences of a man who was wrongfully convicted, in part because of eyewitness misidentification, and his subsequent release from prison.
Kobilinsky, Lawrence F., Thomas F. Liotti, and Jamel Oeser-Sweat. DNA: Forensic and Legal Applications. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Interscience, 2005. Presents a general overview of the uses of DNA analysis in the American criminal justice system.
Lazer, David, ed. DNA and the Criminal Justice System: The Technology of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. Thought-provoking collection of essays explores the ethical and procedural issues related to DNA evidence.
Rudin, Norah, and Keith Inman. An Introduction to Forensic DNA Analysis. 2d ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2002. Provides a good introduction to the use of biological evidence in forensics as well as the history and application of DNA fingerprinting in forensic investigations.
Scheck, Barry, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer. Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution, and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted. New York: Random House, 2000. Describes some of the most prominent and successful cases taken on by the Innocence Project. Also offers commentary on the shortcomings of the American system of criminal justice....
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