Wrongful conviction in the Pennsylvania Criminal Justice System
Wrongful conviction. Two words that strike at the heart of a long held cultural assumption in the majority population of the United States — that we only convict the guilty. But two decades of focus on the issue of wrongful conviction by a number of organizations — including many affiliated with colleges — remind us that the criminal justice system, like any system, can never be entirely fair or blind.
No state is immune from the challenges of investigating and bringing to trial a good, fair and accurate collection of evidence and witnesses. Pennsylvania, including the regions surrounding Reading, Allentown and similar jurisdictions, have begun to incorporate best practices to reduce and avoid wrongful convictions.
A 2011 report from the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions called for serious reforms in the state’s criminal justice system. The Joint State Government Commission, which was instructed to identify the most common causes of wrongful convictions (some of which were capital cases) and any current laws and procedures implicated in each type of causation, found that, “under [the current] institutional structure, defendants have been punished for crimes they did not commit. Compounding these concerns, biological evidence is available in only a small number of cases involving violent crimes. There is every reason to believe that mistaken identifications, false confessions, inadequate legal representation, and other factors underlying wrongful convictions occur with comparable regularity in criminal cases where DNA is absent.”
The committee determined the most common causes of wrongful convictions to be: “mistaken eyewitness identifications; false confessions; perjurious informant testimony; inaccurate scientific evidence; prosecutorial and defense lawyer misconduct; and inadequate funding for defense services,” and made several proposals that are intended to address each cause.
Among the hundreds of best practice recommendations were many simple, common sense ideas such as insuring that pre-lineup instructions for the witness, include reminders that:
- the culprit might or might not be present
- the witness should not feel compelled to identify anyone
- the administrator does not know who the suspect is
- it is just as important to clear innocent persons
The report concludes, “The system cannot routinely accept the conviction of an innocent person without being challenged to consider measures to reduce the likelihood of error and grant redress to victims of these errors… [Exonerations] represent tragedy not only for the person whose life is irreparably damaged by incarceration for a crime he did not commit, but also for the victim since each wrongful conviction also represents the failure to convict the true perpetrator.”