Adversaries as allies: joining together to prevent criminal injustice.

AuthorSaloom, Stephen
PositionWrongful Convictions: Understanding and Addressing Criminal Injustice

Thank you, Chief Judge Lippman. I'd also like to thank the Albany Law Review for organizing this symposium, because the topic is critically important and I appreciate the opportunity to participate.

Today, I will try to address what's necessary to understand and correct the criminal injustice of wrongful convictions. I'll do so by sharing my perspective on the general obstacles to reform, why they exist, and what can be done to overcome them. That sounds nice and tidy--as if I know how to get to the promised land and will, through this presentation, deliver us there. I know, however, that I can't accomplish that. My hope is that this presentation can help us recognize our joint interests in this struggle, and how we can best navigate the road ahead to perpetually minimize the possibility of wrongful convictions and criminal injustice.

As many of you know, The Innocence Project is dedicated to promoting wrongful conviction reform at both the federal level and all fifty states. As the Innocence Project's Policy director, and in my previous work as an attorney and criminal justice policy advocate, I have worked for implementation of the improvements that can prevent criminal injustice--both in the wrongful conviction realm and otherwise. In the course of this work I've gained perspective on the various ways to enable reform, as well as what tends to block it.

While I wish I had the key to overcoming resistance to criminal justice reform, I do not. I have, however, learned a thing or two along the way, and hope that by sharing my experiences with you, we can not only understand what's blocking reform but also be in a better position to more effectively enable change. And perhaps that's all we should be seeking, because "reform" is not a static place at which we can arrive and stop. Preventing wrongful convictions--and criminal injustice generally--requires perpetual work on constantly moving targets. The unfortunate truth is that the quest for preventing criminal injustice will never end. What we need, therefore, is not to identify "the" path to reaching a goal, but a means to regularly overcome obstacles to reform.

Before we launch into that, though, let's just stipulate that our criminal justice system is fundamentally imperfect. It is a system that seeks to discern the truth, and seeks to provide justice. Those are extremely difficult assignments. Given its essential imperfection, the high expectations placed upon it, and the imperfections of the individuals involved in the system, it's not surprising that our justice system can and does err. This becomes clearer with each passing year, particularly as DNA evidence continues to exonerate innocent people at various points within the criminal process, i.e. after arrest, indictment, and conviction. These cases have helped us understand those aspects of the criminal process that mislead police, prosecutors, judges and juries--and even defense lawyers--into thinking that an innocent person committed a serious crime. This recognition has not only humbled us, but also enabled us to better recognize the reality that our criminal justice system can and does "get it wrong" far more often than we ever thought.

The task now is to transform that recognition into practice, to perpetually explore how to integrate improvements into our systems to prevent wrongful convictions. Success will enable us to spare the innocent the inadvertent torment and agony of a wrongful conviction. It will also enable us to better apprehend the guilty, and thus protect the public and enhance faith in our criminal justice system--the latter of which being as valuable as it is intangible.

How to realize that transformation is a question that we all want to answer, because obviously no one wants to see wrongful convictions occur. The victim certainly doesn't, nor does the criminal defense lawyer. The prosecutor's job is to seek justice, so we can count her out, too. The police don't want to collar the innocent, judges have no interest in sending innocent people to prison, and jurors do their best to correctly assess whether in fact a person committed a specific crime. The only person who wants the system to fail is the actual perpetrator of a given crime, who enjoys our system's failures. Yet, given this broad and concerted interest in identifying the guilty and preventing wrongful convictions, our criminal justice systems have been extremely slow to make the available improvements. Why?

One major reason the desired reforms have not already been implemented is that in the criminal justice system, change rarely comes from within. As Amy and District Attorney Vance noted, the crushing demands of peoples' respective roles within the system do not encourage and rarely allow--them as individuals to seek to alter the system. Prosecutors, defense lawyers, police and judges know what they know, and have to work their tails off to simply establish their version of the story and...

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