Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Police and Prosecutors Who Can't Admit They Were Wrong, Continued

When police found Michael Morton's wife beaten to death, along with a note from him indicating that they had recently had an argument, sheriff Jim Boutwell immediately decided that Morton had done it:
Boutwell chose to ignore the physical evidence that pointed to an outside intruder: Fingerprints on a dining room door frame— and elsewhere—that matched no one who lived in the house. A fresh footprint in the fenced-in backyard. And a bandanna, found by Christine’s brother the day after her death, when he searched a construction site behind the Mortons’ home. (Why weren’t the cops the ones searching? Because they’d already zeroed in on Morton.) The bandanna was stained with blood. When the brother handed it over to the police, they failed to test it or to further search the area. They also disregarded a neighbor’s sighting of a man in a green van on the street on the morning of the murder—and, Morton learned much, much later, his young son’s statement to Christine’s mother that he’d seen a “monster” hit Mommy and “break the bed,” when his father wasn’t there.

Two and a half decades later, after the advent of DNA testing and an agonizing, protracted battle by Michael Morton and his lawyers to submit the bandanna to a crime lab for analysis, it became clear that the blood on it came from Christine and an unknown man. . . .
Of course, the sheriff and the prosecutors still refused to admit that Morton was innocent, and a judge had to order him released. Emily Bazelon:
I want to pull on one thread of this narrative, because I’ve seen it in the weave of many other wrongful conviction cases. I’m talking about tunnel vision: the tendency of investigators to seize on an early piece of evidence that appears to implicate the defendant, and to hold on to their belief in his guilt even as other evidence points to his innocence. It’s a problem that by definition emerges in hindsight. What’s scary is how tenaciously police and prosecutors cling to their initial assumptions—and how much this reflects basic human tendencies.
People hate to admit they are wrong, and this seems to be especially true for ambitious people involved in law enforcement. There are thousands of innocent Americans in prison today because police and prosecutors never question their initial assumptions, and seem all but incapable of changing their minds.

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