Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Wrongful Conviction Rate of 37 Percent

A few years ago, Virginia governor Mark Warner ordered the state to carry out up-to-date testing of hundreds of biological samples that had been found in the vaults of the state's criminal justice system. The result:
It was a project intended to take 18 months at a cost of $1.4 million dollars. Now in its seventh year, the cost of the project hovers at $5 million. Nobody has any idea exactly how the Virginia Department of Forensics has conducted its work. Indeed, no one knows much about the specifics of the crime lab’s work at all. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, the state located approximately 800 biological samples of DNA that could be tested. Of those, only 214 were in sufficient condition to yield accurate results. Among these, more than 70 people—one commonly cited figure is 79—appear to have been excluded as the perpetrators of a crime.
If 79 is the correct figure, that would be a false conviction rate of 37 percent. Is that your idea of beyond reasonable doubt?

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, had arrived at his own estimate of 7 percent for the wrongful conviction rate in capital cases nationwide. Has he badly underestimated, or is Virginia an outlier?

As to how people get wrongfully convicted, that is easily answered; they are mis-identified by eye witnesses. One of the men found innocent in Virginia's evidence review had an alibi supported by three witnesses and a bone disease that made it hard for him to overpower anyone, but he was still convicted of rape based solely on the testimony of the victim, who picked him out of a book of mug shots. A study of the first 500 men freed by the Innocence Project found that 76% had been wrongly identified by eye witnesses.

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