Exoneration Nation

We should all be brave enough to acknowledge the mistakes that are made at trial, and to rectify them, so innocent men and women do not languish in jail.

April 18, 2014

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

I was in lovely Portland, Oregon, late last week attending the annual conference of the Innocence Network, a group that has done so much over the past years to bring a measure of justice to those who have been wrongfully convicted. One of the first speakers at the opening session was Mike Reese, who is the Chief of Police of the City of Portland. He warmly welcomed the crowd, and offered some tourist tips, and then said something basic but profound that should be repeated each time the question of exonerations comes up.

We support the work of the Innocence Project, Chief Reese told the audience, because each wrongful conviction means that the person who actually committed the crime in question has not been brought to justice. And that means that the victims of crime aren’t able to accurately deal with the loss they have suffered. The idea behind his remarks, I think, was to send the message that everyone involved in our criminal justice systems, and especially the police and prosecutors, have a vital stake in ensuring both the accuracy of convictions and the sanctity of rigorous appellate review.

This is such a basic premise behind all of the work of noble exonerators in this country — wrongful convictions prevent us from getting to the essential truths about a particular crime — yet it so often is lost in the polemic and often emotional noise that surrounds the conversation we have with one another about our criminal justice systems. The men and women who fight for the wrongfully accused often are accused themselves of subverting justice by seeking to overturn the results of flawed convictions. Because the message is unpleasant — hey, judge, prosecutor, witness, cop, you erred and an innocent person is paying the price—the messenger is decried.

What Chief Reese is saying, I think, is that we should all be focused on making sure that the guilty are convicted and that the innocent are exonerated. That we should all be brave and candid enough to acknowledge the mistakes that are made at trial, and to timely rectify them, so that innocent men and women do not languish in jail. And that we should do these things, every day in every case, not just because we tell our children that this is how the justice system works, or because we declare to the world that our laws are just and fair, but also because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do.

And it’s not as if some grand new legal construct would have to be built to achieve the goal of ridding our prisons of the wrongfully convicted. All the materials already are in place. The police must do better when they investigate crimes and collect evidence. Prosecutors must do better when it comes to evaluating the evidence and presenting accuracy cases. Trial judges and juries must do better to remind themselves to undertake a searing review of the evidence before sending a fellow citizen to prison for life or death. Appellate judges must do better not merely to rubber stamp convictions even when there is strong proof that serious errors occurred at trial.

If everyone in the criminal justice system did better — did, in fact, what the Constitution requires — the number of wrongful convictions would be materially reduced in a matter of years. And that means we all would pay less in incarceration costs for those who shouldn’t be behind bars, and that law enforcement officials could renew their efforts to catch the actual criminals for whom someone else has taken the fall. The only thing we lack today to achieve this result is the will of those within our justice systems to place the values of accuracy and reliability over the values of certainty and finality.

So I applaud Chief Reese for coming to that conference and saying what he said. And I would applaud him even louder if he made the same statement the next time he speaks before a roomful of police chiefs, or prosecutors, or other members of the law enforcement community who hold such power over the fate of the wrongfully convicted. They are the ones who most need to hear the message that the exoneration of the innocent is not something to fear but rather something to welcome. And that we all benefit when convictions are accurate in the first place and when the mistakes generated by our justices systems are fixed as soon as is humanly possible.

(Photo: Thinkstock)