Hoffinger Forum Recap: Brandon Garrett on “Convicting the Innocent”

On Tuesday, October 25, 2011, Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett delivered the second Hoffinger lecture, highlighting several of the main themes in his new book, Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong.

Garrett located and studied more than 200 trial transcripts of the 250 cases where people were exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing.  He sought to determine how these innocent people—who spent an average of 15 years behind bars—were originally wrongly convicted.  In his talk, he discussed three causes of wrongful convictions that emerged from his research (a subset of the topics reviewed in his book): eyewitness misidentifications, false confessions, and faulty forensic analysis.

Eyewitness misidentifications, which occurred in 76% of the 250 cases, often involved suggestive line-ups and show-ups that can powerfully affect an eyewitnesses’ memory.  In many instances, even if the witness was at first unsure of the accuracy of identifying an assailant, they ultimately testified to being completely certain on the witness stand at trial.  In addition to what Garrett deemed “system variables” like suggestive identification procedures, many cases also involved “estimator variables,” such as having seen an attacker in low lighting or cross-race identification.

Innocent defendants made false confessions in 40 of the 250 cases.  Often these false confessions involved individuals with lessened mental capacity or juveniles.  More disturbing, in 38 of those confession cases, police reported that the confessor had told them specific details of a crime that only the perpetrator could have known.  Given that these individuals were innocent and could not have known those facts, it is clear that the confessions were contaminated.  Garrett suggests recording entire interrogations and reliability review by judges as a step towards preventing convictions based on false confessions.

Finally, Garrett spoke about how forensic evidence was presented at the trials of the wrongfully convicted.  In most of the trials, forensic analysts gave misleading testimony at trial, including erroneous statistics and exaggerated expressions of certainty.  In addition, many of the procedures have never been validated and may have disturbingly high error rates.  Garrett lauded the landmark 2009 National Research Council report that called for a structural overhaul in the research and practice of forensics in the United States.

–Student fellow Christina Bucci (‘12)

This entry was posted in Hoffinger Criminal Justice Forum. Bookmark the permalink.