CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Jochnowitz on Wrongful Convictions

What are the explanations and “causes” of wrongful conviction cases beyond the canonical list of errors, including more enduring structural and sociological “causes”? Researchers identify possible structural causes for wrongful convictions: racism, justice system culture, adversary system, plea bargaining, media, juvenile and mentally impaired accused, and wars on drugs and crime. They indicate that unless the root causes of conviction error are identified, the routine explanations of error, (eyewitness identifications; false confessions) will continue to re-occur. Identifying structural problems may help to prevent future wrongful convictions. The research involves the coding of archival data from the Innocence Project for 17 cases including the Central Park five exonerees. The data was coded with Hartwick College and Johnson State College students in the respective wrongful convictions courses.
The analysis was compared with quantitative data from the National Registry of Exonerations. Students also designed a vignette of their case and conducted structured interviews with public officers and college students. Interviews with public officers, judges, lawyers, and investigators inquired into the subjects’ awareness of exonerations. Interviews with classmates inquired about their awareness of the nature of wrongful convictions. The study concludes that structural reasons for wrongful convictions are understated and one must read between the lines to find them. As asserted, the findings show that the canonical list of errors in these cases may be just a veneer for deeper structural problems. Minority kids and other disadvantaged persons may be coerced into confessing due to racial profiling, narrative contamination, tunnel vision, and overzealous misconduct. This finding should inspire reform which not only solves the particular error, but looks to solving underlying problems through awareness, precautions and training.

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