Introduction The criminal justice system’s validity and authenticity is founded mainly upon its evenhandedness and efficacy. Its efficacy is assessed by its facility to identify that a crime has been committed and probe into it, be aware of its offenders and implement suitable measures and penalties to those who will be convicted of transgressions. Likewise, its evenhandedness is evaluated by its diligence and the hard work it makes to rectify the resource inequity between the accused and the state at the investigatory stage, in the pre-trial, trial and appellate phases. This is accomplished as the system provides evidentiary safeguards and efficient legal representation at all stages of the whole process.
Wrongful convictions undercut two aspects of the justice system’s legitimacy – when an accused person is wrongfully convicted, that person is penalized for a crime he/she did not commit and the real person responsible for such offense runs free, in like manner, public confidence in the system weakens when wrongful convictions are known and established.
In recent years, public attention has been brought to this matter of wrongful convictions by the Donald Marshall case in Canada (Royal Commission Report, 1991) and in the United States by the “Hurricane” Carter indictment (Chaiton & Swinton, 1991). Perhaps, there are just a few truly wrongful convictions than asserted; however, there may still be a surprising number. In Great Britain, it has been professed that the incidence rate of wrongful convictions may be as high as.1% (one out of every thousand people).
A further approximation is that there maybe fifteen (15) cases of wrongful convictions each year in Great Britain. Studies and researches in the U.S. reveal that between ½ and 1% of individuals condemned of serious crimes did not actually commit such felony they have been accused of. It has also been implied by the Criminal Justice Research Center that as many as 6,000 people per year have been wrongfully convicted of crimes inside the United States of America. There were no related estimates and declarations of wrongful convictions in Canada, nonetheless, its Department of Justice approximated about thirty applications annually for the review of criminal convictions (Middlemiss, 1991, pp. 20-25).
What triggers wrongful convictions are easy to spot – instances of ineptitude and misdeeds during the stage of investigation, in the pre-trial, trial and appellate phases of the criminal justice system. Specifically, the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions include mistaken identity, false accusations, DNA inclusions of time of trial, deceptive and ambiguous police work, incompetent defense counsel, pressure for a conviction from the community, inadequate identification evidence, perjury, false confessions, misinterpreted and insufficient forensic evidence, judicial bias, mediocre presentation of an appellate case and difficulty in securing fresh evidence that needs to be admitted at the appellate phase (Kaiser, 1991; McCloskey, 1989). Every occasion of wrongful conviction shows a different blend of shortcomings and fiascos in the criminal justice system that has prohibited it from operating efficiently and judiciously.
(Convicted by jury of three counts of aggravated sexual assault; Spent 16 years in prison before post-conviction DNA testing proved his innocence)
A number of glaring issues can be gleaned from this case. First is the issuance of an arrest warrant despite the complainant’s questionable identification where the percentage of certainty is nominal and extremely ambiguous. According to the complainant as she viewed the photographic lineup which included Moon’s picture (how come his photo was immediately included? Did he have prior police record? Or was there an eyewitness to definitely declare that he was at the scene of the crime?) she indicated that he looked like her assailant but that she wasn’t sure. In another instance, she also asserted that she could very well remember the assailant’s facial structure, physique, body size, nose, complexion and his hands.
However, she couldn’t say exactly say if he has a moustache or what color his eyes were due to the darkness of the hallway where she was attacked and the very short time she had in viewing her assailant. Her assertions alone have loopholes in them which should have been thoroughly examined by the investigating team. One inconsistency was that “how could she accurately view his nose and complexion” when the assailant wore a stocking mask on his face? And if it was so dark, how was she able to definitely remember his hands, body size and facial structure? These questions do not imply that the complainant was lying or fabricating things but these definitely showed that there was reasonable doubt in the assailant’s identity. The act of issuing a warrant of arrest and eventually getting a conviction based on vague presumptions and confusing statements is a grave injustice in itself.
As far as the DNA testing was concerned, no conclusions should have been made since the results themselves were inconclusive. To jump to conclusions founded on inconclusive materials is another ethical impropriety.
(Convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in Eau Claire County and sentenced to life in prison in 2001)
On appeal, Zimmerman’s guilty verdict was reversed because his trial lawyer had failed to provide constitutionally adequate assistance. Further, trial counsel didn’t introduce crime scene DNA proof that excluded Zimmerman, was not successful in presenting proficient deposition from the Milwaukee County Medical examiner that challenged the state’s theory of the crime, and failed to oppose hypnotically refreshed testimony offered by the state.
Everyone is fully entitled to appropriate, sufficient and effectual legal representation as provided for by the Constitution of the United States, and as a consequence, ineffectual assistance of counsel is a an unequivocal infringement of everyone’s constitutional rights, in this case, Zimmerman’s rights.
In the Bill of Rights, it is categorically provided that an accused person has the right for due process, his/her day in court. The issue here is – how could an accused person have his/her day in court effectively if no adequate assistance has been given or that his/her counsel is incompetent in presenting the much needed evidence? A person who is in prison just because that person didn’t have the chance to a good legal counselor and a good defense is practically putting him/her on the same boat with the victim slain or raped brutally in cold blood.
The exceptional and distinctive function of a legal counselor is a prime element in the social covenant that entails the justice system to protect the innocent. A defense attorney, though in the other side of the fence, has the same role as the prosecutor. As the Supreme Court explained, the prosecutor “is in a peculiar and very definite sense the servant of the law, the twofold aim of which is that guilt shall not escape or innocence suffer” (Berger v. U.S, 1935). Instead of just acting as a partisan advocate seeking convictions, the ethics rules admonish a prosecutor to be a “minister of justice” and to seek justice (Model Rules of Conduct, 2003).
In this role as a minister of justice, the prosecutor has the responsibility “not simply . . . of an advocate,” but to adopt a somewhat neutral stance “to see that the defendant is accorded procedural justice and that guilt is decided upon the basis of the sufficient evidence” (Kalfayan v U.S., 1993). These expected tasks of a prosecutor are also definitely expected from a legal defense lawyer, once a legal counselor who’s client has been wrongfully accused could not or would not perform such tasks then that accused person will forever be in jail even when he/she’s not guilty.
Most of the times, wrongful convictions happen not just because of mistaken identity or prosecutorial misconduct or incompetent legal assistance or because there isn’t sufficient presentation of evidence. Wrongful convictions also happen because people in society are too impatient for justice to be dispensed with. For most people, the wheels of justice grind so slow that anything is better, even convicting a wrongfully accused person, than not seeing a crime solved. Society also has a lot to do with the wrongful convictions that have occurred in our midst. People want immediate revenge for a raped victim or the wife of a murdered husband, the media sensationalizes everything to the point that an accused person (even when not proven guilty yet) is condemned in the media and painfully suffers trial by publicity.
Wrongful convictions mirror not just incompetence of legal professionals and the shortcomings of the legal system. It also shows how society quickly throws stone to someone accused of a wrongdoing, a wrongdoing that may not really be his/her own.
Chaiton, S. & Swinton, T. 1991. Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Untold Story of the Freeing of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Toronto: Viking
Kaiser, A.H. 1991. “When Justice is a Mirage: A Primer on Wrongful Conviction.” Paper presented at the Conference on Wrongful Conviction, Human Rights Centre, University College of Cape Breton, 24 June
Middlemiss, J. 1991. “Guilty until proven innocent.” Canadian Lawyer. p. 20-25.
McCloskey, J. 1989. “Convicting the innocent.” Criminal Justice Ethics. pp.2, 54-59
Royal Commission on the Donald Marshall Jr. Prosecution, Report, Province of Nova Scotia, December 1989.
Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935).
Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 3.8 cmt. 1 (2003).
United States v. Kalfayan, 8 F.3d 1315, 1323 (9th Cir. 1993)