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Some common causes of wrongful convictions: Part II


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Last week, we began a discussion about two common causes of wrongful conviction: False confessions and flawed eyewitness observation/memory. As the Innocence Project and other advocacy groups continue to overturn wrongful convictions, others are working on ways to prevent such errors in the first place.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, a group of collaborators in New York is working on changes meant to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions based on errors in eyewitness testimony or false confessions. If successful, politicians here in Colorado might consider adopting similar measures.

The first proposed solution is simple. In order to reduce the likelihood of convictions based on false confessions, reform advocates are seeking to make the interrogation process more transparent. Typically, investigators and police turn on audio/video recording devices when they believe a suspect is ready to confess. But advocates say that police should be videotaping the entire interrogation, at least in cases involving major felonies.

Flaws in eyewitness observation and memory are harder to fix but not impossible. Studies have shown that memories can change a little bit each time we recall them. And we may subconsciously fill in any gaps in our memories with information we learned after the fact (or simply with plausible predictions). Even subtle body-language or verbal cues from investigators can influence a witness’ memory of what they saw.

Suggestions to reduce the risk of these errors include:

  • Having a suspect lineup or photo lineup conducted by an officer not involved with the case (to avoid the subtle cues mentioned above)
  • Asking how confident the witness is in their choice of suspect (confidence often builds over time, so confidence early on might be easier to trust)
  • Instructing juries on the limitations of and potential for error with eyewitness identification

Because the criminal justice system will probably always be run by humans, the potential for human error cannot be completely eliminated. That being said, there is certainly much room for improvement, and these common-sense suggestions would be a good start.

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