Eight Myths of Justice

Innocent Americans are routinely convicted and incarcerated.

The new book False Justice explains how.

By Steve Weinberg

In the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Kansas v. March, Justice David Souter and Justice Antonin Scalia conducted a public debate within their opposing written opinions. Discussing the fates of death row prisoners, Souter opined that in such high stakes cases, innocent men and women are too often found guilty. The “unusually high incidence of false conviction” is probably caused by “the combined difficulty of investigating without help from the victim, intense pressure to get convictions in homicide cases, and the corresponding incentive for the guilty to free the innocent,” Souter wrote.

Scalia countered that wrongful convictions are rare in capital cases because they “are given especially close scrutiny at every level, which is why in most cases many years elapse before the sentence is executed.”

For 40 years, I have researched, written about and obsessed over wrongful convictions. Souter’s thinking—heavily reliant on the research of Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor who has demonstrated that wrongful convictions are more prevalent than most law enforcement insiders understand—is spot-on. Scalia’s is misguided, informed by a judicial culture more interested in speedy convictions than thorough investigations.

The law enforcement personage who recognizes the problem of false convictions is a rare and refreshing breed—and often comes from unlikely corners of the political ring. Republican politician Jim Petro, experienced an epiphany during his term as Ohio attorney general that surprised him, his wife Nancy and many of his supporters. The epiphany? Petro realized that a significant number of prisoners who say they are innocent are indeed innocent. He realized that wrongful convictions occur in multiple Ohio county courthouses and in federal courts. He realized that the number of wrongful convictions can be minimized, and that police, prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys can perform their jobs better. His newfound cause was well suited to his law-and-order way of thinking—when wrongful convictions occur, the actual perpetrators (murderers, rapists, burglars, etc.) go unpunished, and often murder or rape or burglarize again.

In my years of research, I have heard only a few prosecutors acknowledge the breadth and depth of the problem. In his new book False Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent (January, Kaplan), Petro outdoes them all.

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