A Matter of Life or Death
Sometimes a criminal defense investigation is literally a matter of life or death. According to the National Institute of Justice, 5-10% of the US prison population is factually innocent of the crimes in which they have been convicted. That translates to over 200,000 innocent people that are in prison today and many sitting on death row. Of those innocent people 90% plead guilty.
The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, has exonerated 212 people to date. There have been 23 cases in New York State alone.
On November 2, 2006, after serving 15.5 years of a 15-Life sentence Jeff Deskovic's indictment charging him with murder, rape, and possession of a weapon was dismissed on the grounds of actual innocence. Post-conviction DNA testing both proved Deskovic's innocence and identified the real perpetrator of a 1989 murder and rape. A number of factors lead to the wrongful conviction of Deskovic including government misconduct and a coerced confession. DNA testing was conducted before trial. The results showed that Deskovic was not the source of semen in the rape kit. Deskovic had been told before the alleged confession that if his DNA did not match the semen in the rape kit, he would be cleared as a suspect. Instead, prosecution continued on the strength of his alleged confession. (as told on the Innocence Project website)
A handful of factors seem to play the most prominent role in wrongful convictions with mistaken identifications being the lead contributing factor. Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to over 75% of the more than 212 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence. Inaccurate eyewitness identifications can confound investigations from the earliest stages. Critical time is lost while police are distracted from the real perpetrator, focusing instead on building the case against an innocent person. Law enforcement all over the country has been found to engage in the following actions that have contributed directly to wrongful convictions: tunnel vision—making a snap decision about who the guilty part is and investigating with bias towards that individual to the exclusion of all others even in the face of hard evidence; the use of trickery and deceit to manipulate or coerce a confession; scouring jails for snitches willing to frame suspects; evidence tampering and even witness intimidation.
Other factors that have contributed to wrongful convictions include: unreliable or limited science at the time of the crime, forensic science misconduct, misuse of informants and prosecutorial misconduct. The use of professional investigators in the criminal defense investigation process significantly impacts the outcome of a criminal case. Many large law offices have in-house investigators, but unfortunately, defendants can not pay the high costs involved with retaining large firms, leaving them with “the best attorney they could afford.” Smaller firms rarely use investigators, leaving a critical part in the chain of justice broken.
The National Legal Aid Defenders Association recommends an investigation be conducted in every case, even those where a guilty plea has been entered. This can significantly decrease the odds of wrongful convictions and bring to light many of the mitigating factors that lead to wrongful convictions prior to the damage being done.