It’s ‘Guilty Until Proven Innocent’ for the Falsely Accused

Posted April 22, 2013 in Crime Your Personal Rights by

Poster from "The Fugitive" movie

Harrison in "The Fugitive," based on the Sam Sheppard case

In the frenzy to pursue the suspects in the bombing at the Boston Marathon, a number of innocent people were publicly scrutinized and falsely accused in both traditional and social media.

Initially news sources reported that a Saudi man who had been injured in the blasts was a suspect — and in fact police did search the man’s apartment, with his consent. There were numerous other reports across a variety of news platforms that suspects had been identified and/or arrested, citing anonymous law enforcement sources. All were false.

The New York Post went so far as to print an image of two young men wearing backpacks on its cover Thursday and suggest that they were suspects. They were soon cleared of suspicion. Later, Internet users incorrectly identified a missing Brown University student as one of the men in the suspect photos the FBI released, broadcasting his name around the world. 

Fortunately, as far as we know, no innocent people were actually arrested in connection with the bombing, let alone convicted. But the rush to name suspects serves as a reminder that all too often our justice system does convict people who didn’t do the crime.


Innocents in Prison

Robert L. Warden

The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, has identified 1,089 people who have been exonerated for crimes since 1989, as of Apr. 3, 2013.

It is, of course, impossible to quantify exactly how many people are wrongly imprisoned because short of exonerating evidence, there is only the word of the prisoner to go on. “There’s an old saying that everybody in prison is innocent,” says Robert L. Warden, executive director of the CWC. “The fact is that some of them really are.”

The largest factor in convicting the innocent is erroneous eyewitness identification, research shows. False confessions are another. “Police or interrogators can lie to a suspect during interrogation,” Warden says. “Often people have been intimidated, or threatened with the death penalty.”

High-profile crimes, especially capital murder cases, may be more likely to result in the wrong person being convicted, since police and prosecutors may be under pressure to put away a suspect to reassure the public — even if it’s not the right suspect. “If it’s a murder, they’ll work much harder to get evidence to the extent they can, and go to trial with less evidence [than for lesser crimes],” says Samuel R. Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and editor of the NRE. “Along the way you make more errors.”


The One-Armed Man

 Some historical examples of innocents hounded:

  • In perhaps the most famous case of a suspect wrongly convicted, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was sentenced to life in prison in 1894 for selling French military secrets to the Germans. The “Dreyfus Affair,” a blatant miscarriage of justice, polarized French society to the point that it led to dramatic upheaval in the country’s political leadership.
  • Richard Jewell was a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Georgia who saved a number of people from being injured by a bomb during the event. Despite his actions, Jewell was fingered as a suspect and saw his life turned upside down by negative media attention. Jewell was never charged and his name was finally cleared years later when Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to the attack.
  • In the story that inspired “The Fugitive” movie and television show, Doctor Sam Sheppard was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife in 1954 and spent a dozen years in prison before he was exonerated in a new trial in 1966. The press mobilized against Sheppard, including an editorial by the Cleveland Press titled “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?”


Seeking Exoneration

Samuel R. Gross

Advances in technology and methodology can hopefully lessen the number of innocent people who are convicted of crimes. Attorneys now have access to DNA evidence, and the omnipresent nature of surveillance cameras could help reduce reliance on eyewitness identification. More jurisdictions record police interrogations, which should lead to a reduction in false or induced confessions, and new theories of witness ID also help to reduce error.

What options does an innocent person in prison have? “If you have new evidence, the state will generally provide some procedure for getting back in front of a court, and saying that the conviction can’t stand,” Gross says. “The actual mechanisms can be extremely variable.”

Try to get the attention of a good attorney or an organization like the Innocence Project, and hope there is some kind of physical evidence to support the case.

It could be an uphill battle. “The criminal justice system is not very forgiving,” Warden says. “Unless there is really persuasive evidence, you’re pretty much out of luck.”

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