The Innocence Checklist

Published date01 January 2021
Date01 January 2021
THE INNOCENCE CHECKLIST
Carrie Leonetti*
ABSTRACT
Because true innocence is unknowable, scholars who study wrongful convic-
tions and advocates who seek to vindicate the innocent must use proxies for inno-
cence. Court processes or off‌icial recognition of innocence are the primary proxy
for innocence in research databases of exonerees. This Article offers an innova-
tive alternative to this process-based proxy: a substantive checklist of factors
that indicates a likely wrongful conviction, derived from empirical and jurispru-
dential sources. Notably, this checklist does not rely on off‌icial recognition of
innocence for its objectivity or validity. Instead the checklist aggregates myriad
indicators of innocence: factors known to contribute to wrongful convictions;
rules of professional conduct; innocence-project intake criteria; prosecutorial
conviction-integrity standards; and jurisprudence governing when convictions
must be overturned because of fresh evidence or constitutional violations. A
checklist based on articulated, uniformly applicable criteria is preferable to the
more subjective and less regulated decisionmaking of judges and prosecutors
who determine innocence using an off‌icial exoneration methodology. Only a con-
ception of innocence independent of off‌icial exoneration can provide the neces-
sary support for reform of barriers to more fruitful postconviction review
mechanisms.
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
I. BACKGROUND: THE INNOCENCE MOVEMENT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100
A. Known Causes of Wrongful Convictions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100
B. Reliance on DNA Evidence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
* Associate Professor, University of Auckland School of Law. Visiting Associate Professor, Universita degli
Studi di Milano-Biccoca, 2018. Thanks to Jane Kelsey of the University of Auckland for her extensive editorial
comments on an earlier draft of this project, the Facolta di Giurisprudenza for the opportunity to visit the
University di Milano and colleague Claudia Pecorella for all of her assistance, journalists Valentino Maimone &
Benedetto Latanzi, co-founders of Errorigiudiziari.com, who graciously traveled to Milan to meet with me,
refused even to let me pay for lunch, and provided me with invaluable information and candid insights, Steve
Wax for the important work that he does with the Oregon Innocence Project and his willingness to take time
away from it to brainstorm with me, Bridget Irvine of the University of Otago Innocence Project and Jane Tudor-
Owen of the Edith Cowan University Criminal Justice Review Project in whom I found much-needed and
sympathetic support for my not-always-popular working thesis, and Dale Smith and Jianlin Chen of the
University of Melbourne, Simon Young of the University of Hong Kong, and David Williams of the University
of Auckland for their feedback on the draft of this Article, which was presented at the Public Law in Four
Jurisdictions symposium at the University of Witwatersrand Rural Facility in Limpopo Province, South Africa.
Any mistakes were almost certainly made by ignoring their advice. © 2021, Carrie Leonetti.
97
C. Innocence Commissions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
II. DEFINING WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
A. The Meaning of “Innocence”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105
1. The Relationship Between Legally Insuff‌icient Proof &
Actual Innocence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106
2. Failures of Procedural Justice and “Innocence” . . . . . . . . 107
B. Methodologies for Def‌ining Innocence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110
1. Off‌icial Exoneration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
2. Conclusive Proof of Factual Innocence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113
3. The High Price of Poor Proxies for Innocence . . . . . . . . . 114
4. The Problem with a Legal Innocence Standard . . . . . . . . . 119
5. Def‌ining Likely Actual Innocence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120
C. Changing Science as a Specif‌ic Context for the Meaning of
“Innocence”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120
III. CASE STUDIES IN DEFINITIONAL DISAGREEMENTS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 123
A. The Registry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 124
1. Over-Inclusion: Questionable “Exonerations” . . . . . . . . . 124
2. Under-Inclusion: Missing Innocents. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126
B. Competing Narratives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 128
C. The Social Psychology of Cognitive Biases . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
1. Prosecutorial Resistance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
2. Innocence Consciousness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 132
IV. RECONCEPTUALIZING INNOCENCE: A WRONGFUL CONVICTION CHECKLIST . 133
A. Known Causes of Wrongful Convictions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134
B. Model Rules & Standards: Prosecutorial Charging, Disclosure,
& Relief . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134
C. Innocence Project Intake Criteria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135
D. Conviction-Integrity Units . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
E. Data from Innocence Commissions, Public Inquiries, & the New
Zealand Justice Ministry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
1. The UK . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
2. Scotland. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
3. New Zealand . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
4. Virginia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137
F. Fresh Evidence & Freestanding Actual Innocence Claims . . . . 138
G. Postconviction Review of Constitutional Claims . . . . . . . . . . . 140
1. Prosecution Disclosure of Favorable Evidence . . . . . . . . . 140
2. Effective Assistance of Counsel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
3. Bad Faith Destruction of Evidence & Suborning Perjury . . 141
4. Prejudice . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
5. Lower Court Opinions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 142
6. Prosecutors’ Brady Policies. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
98 AMERICAN CRIMINAL LAW REVIEW [Vol. 58:97
V. CONCEPTUALIZING INNOCENCE THROUGH A COMPREHENSIVE CHECKLIST . . 143
A. Factors. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 145
B. Example Applications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150
CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 151
INTRODUCTION
This Article addresses a central conceptual foundation for the social-scien-
tif‌ic and legal study of wrongful convictions: how to def‌ine innocence. The
base rate of innocence in the criminal justice system is not knowable. As a
result, scholars who study wrongful convictions and advocates who seek to
vindicate the innocent must use def‌initional proxies for innocence. Currently,
databases of wrongful convictions, which form the basis of study and advo-
cacy for scholars and reform organizations, rely on court processes or off‌icial
recognition of innocence as their primary proxy for determining when a
wrongful conviction has occurred. This Article is not the f‌irst to tackle these
diff‌icult def‌initional conundrums. But it is the f‌irst to propose a substantive
rather than legal or procedural conception of likely innocence that can be
used in the context of scholarly databases, judicial review, and innocence
commissions.
1
This Article argues for a new conception of wrongful conviction: a substan-
tive—rather than procedural—conception that does not rely on off‌icial proc-
esses for its objectivity. Part I traces the background of the innocence
movement. It describes the known causes of wrongful convictions that have
emerged from that movement. It documents its historical reliance on DNA
exonerations in generating that canon of causes. It discusses the development
of innocence commissions and the role that they play in exonerating the
innocent.
Part II sets forth two typologies. The f‌irst is a typology of the meaning of
“innocent” when it is employed by legal scholars, courts, and practitioners.
The second is a typology of the current methodologies used by databases
created by scholars and reform organizations to determine when a particular
def‌inition of innocence has been fulf‌illed. Part II argues that the current def‌ini-
tions of innocence and, in particular, the methodologies employed for compil-
ing wrongful convictions in databases, are invalid because they are under- and
over-inclusive. The invalid def‌initional proxies obscure an accurate account-
ing of wrongful convictions and mask, perhaps, the single greatest cause of
wrongful convictions in the United States: formidable procedural barriers to
postconviction relief.
1. This Article uses “factual innocence,” “actual innocence,” “likely innocence,” “wrongful conviction,” and
“false conviction” interchangeably. The signif‌icance of these terms, unless context indicates otherwise, is that the
factual circumstances surrounding a defendant’s conviction give rise to an unacceptable likelihood of wrongful
conviction, as def‌ined in this Article, not caselaw.
2020] THE INNOCENCE CHECKLIST 99

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