Final Wrongful Convictions lecture focuses on flaws in U.S. criminal justice system, death penalty future
By Daria Sokolova
The flaws of the U.S. criminal justice system were the primary focus of the lecture titled “Wrongful Convictions: Enacting Change” — the final event in the third annual Wrongful Convictions Distinguished Speaker Series.
The lecture featured Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law Rob Warden.
Prior to co-founding the Center on Wrongful Convictions with Lawrence C. Marshall in 1999, Warden worked as a publisher and the editor of Chicago Lawyer magazine, which he founded in 1978, and as a foreign correspondent and editor at the Chicago Daily News.
Warden is an award-winning journalist and a co-author of the book “A Promise of Justice.” He was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2003.
Warden began the event by providing the details of the “ghost story” that dates back to 1812 when Jesse and Stephen Boorn from Manchester, Vt. were accused and convicted of the murder of their brother-in-law Russel Calvin based on the false testimony provided by Silas Merrill — the first jailhouse snitch in the American criminal justice system.
“This is an old story, but the elements of this case that produced wrongful convictions are the same we see reoccuring in modern wrongful convictions that include jailhouse snitch, false confessions and junk science,” Warden said.
Warden said that despite the lack of correlation between the confidence the witness expresses and the accuracy of his or her testimony, jurors are asked to take an eyewitness testimony into account.
“Our law makes it possible to sustain a conviction and even the death sentences based solely on eyewitness identification,” Warden said. “Under Supreme Court Law, a jury should be called to take into account the confidence expressed by the witness. That’s a very serious problem.”
Warden noted that there is a law in Illinois requiring judges to hold pretrial hearings to determine credibility of witness testimony.
He said the most perplexing thing about wrongful convictions is false confessions.
“We understand how people confess under torture,” he said. “But what we don’t understand is how people of normal intelligence who have not been physically tortured would confess to crimes they didn’t commit.”
Warden said that, although there have been a number of wrongful convictions cases that were overturned since DNA testing, the “sheer serendipity” of the cases that were happening a few hundred years ago and are happening now is undeniable.
As an example, he provided the case of Gary Dotson who was wrongfully convicted of rape as a result of false testimony provided by 16-year-old Cathleen Crowell. Crowell concocted a rape story using the elements of the novel “Sweet Savage Love” by Rosemary Rogers, as she was afraid of angering her parents by potential a pregnancy from consensual sex with her boyfriend.
“Garry became the first person in America that was acquitted by the emerging forensic technology that has resulted in more than 350 exonerations in America,” Warden said. “These cases are just a proverbial tip of an iceberg.”
Warden said eyewitness identification is permitted as sole evidence in trials, despite how unreliable it is.
The Innocent Project has found that 75 percent of those whose cases were overturned by DNA had been been found guilty partially because of wrong identification, while 36 percent were identified by more than one mistaken eyewitness.
Warden referred to the case of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony, who was executed for being a spy for Spain in 1608, which was the first execution in America’s history after European settlers brought the practice of capital punishment to the U.S.
According to Warden, it was the first execution based solely on jailhouse snitch testimony.
“That is the origin of capital punishment in this country, and from there it has been pretty much downhill,” he said.
Warden said that the research done by Gary Wells, a psychology professor from Iowa State University, showed that eyewitness identifications can be reduced by 50 percent by changing the method of eyewitness identification as opposed to doing a standard police lineup where people just stand in a row and the witness is asked to identify the perpetrator.
According to the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, the fallibility of eyewitnesses in these cases supports decades-long research showing memory was proved to be easily corruptible and highly unreliable, because memory doesn’t work like a tape-recorder.
“The entire procedure should be electronically recorded so we could document exactly what happened,” Warden said. “The reason that is important is because [the] witness may develop a false memory by the time he or she testifies in court.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Illinois became 16th state to abolish the death penalty after Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill on July 1, 2011.
But as Warden said, Illinois didn’t get its Death Penalty Statute until 1977, a document that questioned the constitutionality of capital punishment.
“Under that statute, 303 individuals were sentenced to death in illinois,” Warden said. “Out of them, 20 were ultimately exonerated based on substantial evidence of actual innocence … But if our system can’t even figure out who’s innocent and who is guilty, how can it possibly make rational reason and accurate decisions about who deserves to live and who deserves to die.”