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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Wrongful Convictions – The Role of the Jury

By Dick Blanchard, Executive Director, Advocates 4 Wrongfully Convicted

Introduction

In 2011 The Innocence Project issued a report stating there were 100,000+ innocent people in U.S. prisons that had been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. There are other organizations that state higher numbers. A couple of months after the Innocence Project released its report a study by Ohio State University stated they believed 10,000 people were wrongfully convicted every year. Does this mean juries got it wrong 10,000 times every year? Probably not! For many of those 10,000 cases were probably plea bargains, meaning that innocent people were willing to take a lesser sentence than risk a trial by jury which could and probably would result in a much greater sentence if convicted. Suppose that of those 10,000 people 1,000 rolled the dice and took their change with a trial by jury. This means all 1,000 of these people were wrongfully convicted by 1,000 different juries.

Jury Duty

Before addressing the potential causes of why these juries got it wrong let’me state that I believe the vast majority of people called to perform their civic duty of serving on a jury take this responsibility seriously and try to reach the correct and just decision. But we know in spite of this dedication by juries, approximately 1,000 of them got it wrong and send 1,000 innocent people to prison each and every year.

Causes for Jury Mistakes

These are some of the causes I feel why juries make wrong decisions:

  1. During jury selection both the prosecution and defense try to stack the jury with people they believe will be more likely to believe their version of the crime or to be more specific their version of “The Story.” So we’re not always getting a jury that is totally objective and unbiased.
  2. Jurors are human beings and as such have feelings and emotions. Even though judges instruct jurors to vote specifically on the evidence presented it is often difficult for jurors to totally disregard their emotions. I have talked with people who state it would be extremely difficult to put their feelings aside and weigh just the evidence when there is a defendant sitting in court that they believe to be a “monster” and has been charged with a hideous crime. Let me review 3 well known cases and look at how the jury voted in each and did they get it right. A) The OJ Simpson Case – many people felt the race card was played in this case and that is why Mr. Simpson was acquitted, but is that the real reason? Let me state I felt Mr. Simpson was guilty, but who put on the better case, the prosecution or the defense. My opinion is the defense did using many of the tricks prosecutors use to obtain wrongful convictions. So did this jury get it wrong? Possibly but that defense, right or wrong was able to convince that jury there was reasonable doubt and if the jury felt reasonable doubt they had to vote not-guilty in spite of what I believed. Would a more educated and knowledgeable jury been able to see through the defense’s trick when it came to DNA, possibly and the jury decision might have been different. A great many white people also believed if the jury had more whites on it the decision would have been different. So you can see based on the makeup of that jury how their decision was made. Did feelings and emotions play a part of the decision; probably. B) The Scott Peterson Case  C) The Casey Anthony Case
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Aside

By Dick Blanchard, Executive Director, Advocates 4 Wrongfully Convicted

It has become a fairly known fact that the criminal justice system in America is broken. Day after day we read about people that have been released from prison and exonerated due to wrongful convictions for crimes they did not commit. Many of these people had been sentenced to life sentences without parole, or sentences for many years and yes people even on death row; there is even proof that some innocent people have been actually executed for crimes they did not commit. And for all those people having their convictions overturned there are tens of thousands of innocent people still in U.S. prisons; most of them will die in prison never having their conviction overturned or not even looked at or reviewed.

Why did the justice system in America start sending innocent people to prison on a fairly regular basis? Remember the Willie Horton case in the Bush vs. Dukakis presidential race of 1988? A big deal was made by the Bush campaign that Gov. Michael Dukakis was soft on crime when he released convicted murderer, Willie Horton on ten weekend passes only to have Horton commit another series crime while he was out on a weekend pass. Bush won the presidency in 1988 in no small part to his relentless pursuit of Dukakis being soft on crime. It didn’t take long for politicians, including judges and prosecutors to see they could win political office by painting their opponent with the soft on crime tag and painting themselves as hard on crime and criminals. Once in office these righteous prosecutors started convicting not only the guilty but also the innocent to show their constituents that they took crime very seriously and would do whatever necessary to obtain a conviction, right or wrong.  Likewise judges that were up for election didn’t want to appear soft on crime by releasing people convicted of a crime and rarely took the time to see if just maybe the person up for appellate review was in fact innocent. Once this tend started it began to snowball and sadly continues to present time. Even though much has been done in the past ten years to help prevent wrongful convictions there are still far to many innocent people wrongfully convicted, and once convicted and in prison their chances of having their convictions overturned are quite slim.

The Innocence Project has stated that there are six causes for wrongful convictions:

  1. Junk science
  2. Bad lawyering
  3. Eyewitness testimony
  4. Informants
  5. Government misconduct
  6. False confessions

Any combinations of any one of these causes are apt to result in a wrongful conviction which sends an innocent person to prison for a crime that he/she did not commit.

But there is another side to wrongful convictions besides these six causes. The other side of wrongful convictions is the psychology of role players that are involved in the criminal justice system.

A few months ago I was having a conversation with a lawyer friend and he stated something so obvious that I wondered why I had never considered it before. He said that when a person decides to go to trial as a defendant it’s him/her against the world. So who are the role players that is on the opposite side of the defendant?

The Criminal Justice System Role Players:

  1. The Police
  2. The Prosecution
  3. The Trial Lawyer
  4. The State’s Witnesses
  5. The Judge
  6. The Jury
  7. The Appellate Lawyer
  8. The Appellate Courts
  9. The Media

When one looks at the above list some of these people seem pretty obvious. You would expect the police, the prosecutor and the state’s witnesses to be on the other side of the defendant. But would you expect his own lawyers, the judge, the jury, the appellate courts and the media to be against him/her as well?

In a series of upcoming blogs I will take each one of these nine groups and show how each one opposes the defendant and why this opposition often leads to a wrongful conviction.

  1. Wrongful Convictions – The Role of the Police
  2. Wrongful Convictions – The Role of the Prosecution
  3. Wrongful Convictions – The Role of the Defense Trial Lawyer
  4. Wrongful Convictions – The Role of the State’s Witnesses
  5. Wrongful Convictions – The Role of the Judge
  6. Wrongful Convictions – The Role of the Jury
  7. Wrongful Convictions – The Role of The Defense Appellate Lawyer
  8. Wrongful Convictions – The Role of the Appellate Courts
  9. Wrongful Convictions – The Role of the Media

One other thing to remember is when a person decides to go to trial they MUST prove their innocence. Yes, the law says a person is to be assumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt but don’t believe it; just ask anyone who was wrongfully convicted if they were presumed innocent. Presumption of innocence may have been the standard in the past but in today’s world of the U.S Criminal Justice System that no longer holds true. The following nine blogs will show you just how much the cards are stacked against the defendant and why he/she MUST prove their innocence, often beyond all doubt.

The Psychology of Wrongful Convictions