Professor of Sociology and Criminology, Mount Holyoke College
New York Times op-ed, August 2, 2007, reprinted with the written permission of Richard Moran and the New York Times
LAST week, Judge Nancy Gertner of the Federal District Court in Boston awarded more than $100 million to four men whom the F.B.I. framed for the 1965 murder of Edward Deegan, a local gangster. It was compensation for the 30 years the men spent behind bars while agents withheld evidence that would have cleared them and put the real killer — a valuable F.B.I. informant, by the name of Vincent Flemmi — in prison.
Most coverage of the story described it as a bizarre exception in the history of law enforcement. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior by those whose sworn duty it is to uphold the law is all too common. In state courts, where most death sentences are handed down, it occurs regularly.
My recently completed study of the 124 exonerations of death row inmates in America from 1973 to 2007 indicated that 80, or about two-thirds, of their so-called wrongful convictions resulted not from good-faith mistakes or errors but from intentional, willful, malicious prosecutions by criminal justice personnel. (There were four cases in which a determination could not be made one way or another.)
Yet too often this behavior is not singled out and identified for what it is. When a prosecutor puts a witness on the stand whom he knows to be lying, or fails to turn over evidence favorable to the defense, or when a police officer manufactures or destroys evidence to further the likelihood of a conviction, then it is deceptive to term these conscious violations of the law — all of which I found in my research — as merely mistakes or errors.
Mistakes are good-faith errors — like taking the wrong exit off the highway, or dialing the wrong telephone number. There is no malice behind them. However, when officers of the court conspire to convict a defendant of first-degree murder and send him to death row, they are doing much more than making an innocent mistake or error. They are breaking the law.
Perhaps this explains why, even when a manifestly innocent man is about to be executed, a prosecutor can be dead set against reopening an old case. Since so many wrongful convictions result from official malicious behavior, prosecutors, policemen, witnesses or even jurors and judges could themselves face jail time for breaking the law in obtaining an unlawful conviction.
Strangely, our misunderstanding of the real cause underlying most wrongful convictions is compounded by the very people who work to uncover them. Although the term “wrongfully convicted” is technically correct, it also has the potential to be misleading. It leads to the false impression that most inmates ended up on death row because of good-faith mistakes or errors committed by an imperfect criminal justice system — not by malicious or unlawful behavior.
For this reason, we need to re-frame the argument and shift our language. If a death sentence is overturned because of malicious behavior, we should call it for what it is: an unlawful conviction, not a wrongful one.
In the interest of fairness, it is important to note that those who are exonerated are not necessarily innocent of the crimes that sent them to death row. They have simply had their death sentences set aside because of errors that led to convictions, usually involving the intentional violation of their constitutional right to a fair and impartial trial. Very seldom does the court go the next step and actually declare them innocent.
In addition, some of these unlawful convictions resulted from criminal justice officials trying to do the right thing. (A police officer, say, plants evidence on a defendant he is convinced is guilty, fearing that the defendant will escape punishment otherwise.) In cases like these, officers or prosecutors have been known to “frame a guilty man.”
The malicious or even well-intentioned manipulation of murder cases by prosecutors and the police underscores why it’s important to discard, once and for all, the nonsense that so-called wrongful convictions can be eliminated by introducing better forensic science into the courtroom.
Even if we limit death sentences to cases in which there is “conclusive scientific evidence” of guilt, as Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate and former governor of Massachusetts has proposed, we will still not eliminate the problem of wrongful convictions. The best trained and most honest forensic scientists can only examine the evidence presented to them; they cannot be expected to determine if that evidence has been planted, switched or withheld from the defense.
The cause of malicious unlawful convictions doesn’t rest solely in the imperfect workings of our criminal justice system — if it did we might be able to remedy most of it. A crucial part of the problem rests in the hearts and souls of those whose job it is to uphold the law. That’s why even the most careful strictures on death penalty cases could fail to prevent the execution of innocent people — and why we would do well to be more vigilant and specific in articulating the causes for overturning an unlawful conviction.