Monday, May 08, 2006

The Innocence Project

Recently I started to think about the death penalty. It had been a while since I had given serious attention to capital punishment. In particular I wanted to know more about those who are exonerated from death row. Although I do remember cases of convicts released after DNA tests excluded them from the crime, I had do idea about the scope of the phenomenon.

I checked out and have just finished reading Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make it Right by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer. Scheck and Neufeld founded The Innocence Project in New York to provide legal aid to the wrongfully convicted. The provide counsel free of charge and work tirelessly for the inmates who become invisible behind prison walls.

Violent crime happens.A five-year-old is raped and murdered. An eyewitness is one hundred and ten perfect sure that Jim X did it. The system rushes toward justice and throws away the key. We breathe easier. We condemn the inmate and we walk freely down the streets.

Justice has been served. Or has it? Scheck et. al. shows that underpaid/overworked defense attorneys, shoddy science, racial discrimination, and eyewitnesses who tell compelling narratives add up to blind justice. Literally blind. And not in the fair and impartial way.

We tacitly endorse a system that is efficient and “hard on crime” even at the cost of truth. Modern DNA analysis has shed light on the ranks of the wrongfully convicted and the ways our judicial system failed and continues to fail.

Scheck found that in 130 DNA exonerations, 101 were cases involved mistake identifications. In other words, the eyewitnesses fingered the wrong person. How can this be?

It turns out that eyewitnesses are notoriously bad at recalling their attackers. After the attack when the tension mounts to name the criminal, the victim has incredible pressure both internally and externally to produce a narrative of the attack.

The brain takes data from before and after the attack to form a narrative that explains the events and helps the victim process the experience.

It turns out the brain is much more interested in healing itself by means of a coherent narrative than it is about facts.

Scheck does not go deeply into pyschology in his book, but the problem of eyewitness accounts dovetails nicely with the subject matter of another book I am reading, Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson.

Although I have only just started to page through another book, I can already recommend Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated. While Sheck's book is a compelling third-person narrative, this collection is a rich and disturbiing collection of oral histories edited by Lola Vollen and Dave Eggers. (Yes, that Dave Eggers. What a man.)

While you may not have time to read Scheck or Eggers, at least visit the website for The Innocence Project to get a better idea of what is at stake for the wrongfully convicted.

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