Chapter 2 Wrongful Convictions and the Criminal Justice Process: Decision Points and Decision-Makers

JurisdictionUnited States

Chapter 2 Wrongful Convictions and the Criminal Justice Process: Decision Points and Decision-Makers

A. Introduction

Wrongful convictions are the product of numerous interrelated decisions made by diverse actors in the criminal justice system. The police ordinarily are at the front end of the process as they investigate reported crimes and exercise their powers of arrest. Then, prosecutors, working closely with the police, typically oversee formal charging decisions and determine which cases will proceed to disposition, to be resolved either through guilty pleas or contested trials. The accused, of course, is an active participant in deciding how to plead to a charged offense. If a guilty plea is tendered the case will come before a judge for final resolution. A not guilty plea sets the stage for a trial before a judge or jury. The defendant is entitled to be acquitted unless the prosecution sustains its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If it meets its burden of persuasion and judgment is entered on the guilty verdict, the defendant—even if innocent in fact—will stand convicted under law.

Once guilt is formally adjudicated, the defendant, no longer cloaked in a legal presumption of innocence, must affirmatively demonstrate that error tainted the conviction if the judgment is later to be disturbed. In this respect, innocent defendants face a peculiar disadvantage on appeal because, for the most part, appellate review focuses on detecting procedural error rather than re-examining the facts supporting a guilty verdict. An appellate court nevertheless may be asked to review the sufficiency of the evidence that underlies a conviction, and federal courts on habeas corpus review are empowered to decide whether a constitutionally adequate quantum of evidence supports a judgment of guilt. New evidence bearing on a defendant's professed innocence sometimes surfaces after a trial has been completed. Since that evidence is not part of the record reviewed on appeal, it may serve as the basis for a petition for a hearing and request for a new trial on post-conviction review. The federal courts also may be asked to issue a writ of habeas corpus, a remedy available to individuals contesting the legality of their confinement, to prisoners who maintain their innocence and claim that their constitutional rights have been violated. Finally, executive clemency (such as a pardon issued by a state governor or, in federal cases, by the President) may be available to individuals who have been denied judicial relief notwithstanding their claims of innocence.

In this chapter we introduce several of the decision points and decision-makers in the criminal justice process that are instrumental in producing and perpetuating wrongful convictions. More positively, these same decision-makers can help guard against and correct wrongful convictions when the process works effectively. We begin by considering the police decision to arrest.

B. The Police and the Decision to Arrest

The decision to arrest is momentous. An arrest sets in motion a chain of events that, in the normal sequence, immerses the suspect increasingly deeper in a process that can entail pre-trial incarceration, the filing of formal criminal charges, adjudication, and punishment. The police exercise vast discretion and are entrusted with broad authority in making arrests. Although statutes may constrain some of their arrest powers, the federal Constitution permits the police to make custodial arrests even for minor offenses that are not punishable by jail time.1 The police normally are entrusted to make arrests without prior judicial authorization in the form of a warrant as long as they have probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a crime.2 And, significantly, the "probable cause" standard is a forgiving one. It does not require the police to be correct that the person arrested is in fact guilty of committing a crime, but only that adequate, objective reasons support their decisions. As the Supreme Court explained in District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 586 (2018):

To determine whether an officer had probable cause for an arrest, "we examine the events leading up to the arrest, and then decide 'whether these historical facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to' probable cause." Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371 (2003) (quoting Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 696 (1996)). Because probable cause "deals with probabilities and depends on the totality of the circumstances," 540 U.S., at 371, it is "a fluid concept" that is "not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules," Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 232 (1983). It "requires only a probability or substantial chance of criminal activity, not an actual showing of such activity." Id., at 243-244, n. 13 (1983). Probable cause "is not a high bar." Kaley v. United States, [134 S.Ct. 1090, 1103 (2014)].

With these observations in mind, we consider a Louisiana case in which a man who was convicted of murder and served several years in prison before his conviction was vacated and he gained release sued the police for damages on the ground that he had been wrongfully arrested.

Gibson v. State
758 So.2d 782 (La. 2000)

TRAYLOR, Justice.

In 1968, Plaintiff, Roland Gibson was convicted of first degree murder and received a life sentence. He subsequently filed an application for post conviction relief and, in 1993, was granted a new trial based upon the failure of the District Attorney to furnish Brady material. Lloyd West, the sole witness testifying against Gibson, recanted his previous testimony and confession wherein he implicated Gibson as the triggerman in the murder. Gibson, his wife, and two sons filed the instant suit for false arrest and imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and personal injury for Gibson's twenty-five-year incarceration. Without West's testimony, the District Attorney entered a nolle prosequi as to Gibson's indictment on March 31, 1993.

After the civil trial in the instant matter, the trial court found the Police lacked probable cause for Gibson's 1967 arrest and awarded Plaintiffs in excess of eleven million dollars in damages.... The court of appeal affirmed the trial court, but ... apportioned forty-five percent of the fault to the State, forty-five percent to the City, and ten percent to West....

We granted writs to determine whether, after being duly convicted of a crime and later released, a party may succeed in a suit for civil damages against the municipality for his arrest, prosecution, and incarceration on the basis of an alleged wrongful arrest. ... [W]e answer this question in the negative. We hold that the City cannot be found at fault for Plaintiff's alleged wrongful arrest and prosecution and, therefore, vacate the contrary findings of the lower courts.


Murder Investigation and Trial

On December 30, 1967, at approximately 8:30 p.m. Charles Reinecke, Jr., a New Orleans Yellow Cab driver, was shot and killed in his taxi during an armed robbery. On January 1, 1968, the New Orleans Police (Police) completed an Offense Against Person Case Report detailing that an unknown five-foot, eleven-inch tall white male, twenty-five to thirty years of age, and weighing approximately 160 pounds was wanted in connection with the investigation "for questioning only." The Police lifted a fingerprint from a rear cab window and later determined it belonged to Lloyd West.

West, who was already in Police custody for an unrelated crime, initially denied any knowledge of the incident and gave the names of two persons with whom he claimed to have been at the time of the murder. These individuals denied being with West. West named a third individual, Thomas Crayton, who denied being with West at the time of the murder but informed the Police that on December 29, 1967 West and an AWOL Army soldier named "Roland" spent the night at his home. Crayton stated that he left West and "Roland" at his home when he left at noon on December 30, 1967. The Police contacted the Army and confirmed that as of 7:00 a.m. on December 30, 1967, a soldier named Roland Gibson was reported AWOL from his company in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and could have been missing for up to forty-eight hours.

West was again interviewed and confronted with the discrepancies in his statements. At this point, he changed his story and claimed he was with his mother at the time of the murder. His mother was summoned to the police station, refused to be his alibi, and told Police that her son was lying. The Police apprized West of his mother's statement and asked him to submit to a polygraph test. Only after the polygraph test indicated deception did West confess his involvement in the murder and implicate Gibson as the triggerman. West repeated this confession on video, in the presence of his mother and uncle. West told Police that the murder weapon, a gun, was under a mattress at Gibson's residence.3

On March 30, 1968, the Police obtained a search warrant for Gibson's residence and served it on Gibson's mother. During the search, the Police found no weapon but remained at the residence and arrested Gibson when he arrived home at 6:20 a.m., intoxicated from a night of drinking. The Police arrested Gibson and took him to the police station.... On April 1, 1968, Gibson was advised of his rights and questioned by the Police. He repeatedly denied any knowledge of the murder and claimed to have left Fort Campbell by bus at 10:00 p.m. on the day of the murder. According to this story, Gibson could not have reached New Orleans by the time of the murder. Gibson told Police he arrived in New Orleans at approximately 3:00 a.m. the day after the murder. In an attempt to corroborate his story, Gibson told Police he was paid on the morning of December 30, 1967 but later produced an Army pay stub showing he was in fact paid on December...

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