In the News: Shedding Light on Wrongful Conviction

March 7, 2014

Man behind prison bars.Imagine. You are an honest, hardworking citizen, going about your daily life when suddenly, you  are arrested by police. You find out you are being charged for a horrendous crime you didn’t commit. A whirlwind trial ensues.

You plead innocent.  Then, after just a few hours of deliberation, the jury is ready to deliver their verdict: Guilty. And the sentence? Death.

Thus is the story of Edward Lee Elmore, an African American man, in 1982, when he was just 23 years old. Convicted of rape and murder, he prepared to live out the rest of his days on death row. His luck slowly turned around, however, when lawyers working on his appeal uncovered details revealing a misuse of evidence in the initial investigation. On March 2, 2012, at the age of 53—thirty-one years after his sentencing—Elmore walked out of prison as a free man.

Elmore’s story is one of several that will be featured in a new CNN special series, “Death Row Stories,” set to air starting this Sunday.  The series seeks to shed light on the serious and controversial issue of the death penalty in the United States.  According to CNN, part of what makes the death penalty so controversial is the existence of an imperfect justice system. Author and historian Thomas Cahill states that 10% of death row prisoners are later exonerated for their crimes due to wrongful convictions.

Countless stories such as Elmore’s have been emerging in recent years due to increased efforts by police and prosecutors to re-examine possible wrongful convictions, as reported in an article from Fox News last month. Last year, 87 people in the U.S. were exonerated for their crimes, the highest number yet, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project by the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law.  The NRE has documented more than 1,300 cases of wrongful conviction since 1989, as well as 1,100 “group exonerations,” most of which were linked to police misconduct using planted drug and gun evidence.

Actions being taken to correct this problem include the creation of “conviction integrity units” in many counties across the U.S. In addition, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, in collaboration with the U.S. Justice Department and The Innocence Project, is working on putting in place measures such as new guidelines for photo line-ups and witness interviews to reduce the number of false confessions.

UTP Journals is fortunate to have a rich collection of articles devoted to the topic of wrongful convictions, thanks to a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice (46.2). A sample of articles in this issue include

“Wrongful Convictions: The American Experience,” in which Ronald Huff discusses the extent to which false convictions may occur and the factors contributing to them, recent and current developments in U.S. legislation, innocence projects, and the significance of wrongful conviction as a factor in challenges against the death penalty;

“The Burden of Innocence: Coping with a Wrongful Imprisonment,” in which Kathryn Campbell and Myriam Denov reveal, through in-depth interviews, the voices and experiences of five wrongly convicted Canadians as they speak about wrongful arrest, imprisonment, and release.

In addition to issue 46.2, check out also “Coroners’ Interested Advocacy: Understanding Wrongful Accusations and Convictions” (48.5) and “Student Attitudes toward Wrongful Conviction” (51.3).

What are your thoughts on your country’s justice system? What would you do if you or someone you loved was wrongfully convicted of a crime? Tweet to us @utpjournals.

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