Forum explores wrongful convictions in Washington state
Is being right 99.973 percent of the time close enough?
Four people who were convicted of major crimes and incarcerated in Washington state prisons have been exonerated and released since 2008, thanks to the efforts of the Innocence Project Northwest.
Next month, UW Tacoma will present a forum (see details below) to discuss these cases and the factors that contribute to wrongful convictions. One of the speakers, Alan Northrop, was convicted of rape in 1993. After serving 17 years, DNA evidence proved he was innocent.
UW Tacoma’s Stephen Ross, assistant professor in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and the forum’s organizer, said the panelists will discuss factors leading to wrongful conviction and what can be done to minimize its occurrence. For example, he said, the single, greatest cause of wrongful convictions is mistakes made by eyewitnesses in identifying suspects. Better procedures for line-ups and identifying perpetrators could cut down on cases of mistaken identification — at almost no cost to the taxpayer.
Nationally, 825 people have been exonerated. Of those, 283 were proved innocent by DNA evidence, largely through the efforts of the Innocence Project, founded in 1992, and other organizations like it. DNA evidence, which tends to garner more attention from the news media, applies only to a small portion of felony crimes, namely rape and sometimes murder. The cases where DNA can be conclusive were tried during a time when DNA evidence was collected, but before it became easy to use in eliminating suspects. Wrongful convictions based on other kinds of evidence, which are by far the majority, are more difficult to correct.
The Innocence Project website lists seven of the most common causes of wrongful convictions:
- eyewitness misidentification
- unvalidated or improper forensic science
- false confessions/admissions
- government misconduct
- bad lawyering
It’s impossible to know how many wrongful convictions there are, or even what the total prison population is, due to differences in bookkeeping between government agencies and a constant flux of inmates in and out of the system. Researchers have estimated that the rate of wrongful convictions ranges from .027 percent to 5 percent of the total prison population.
Ross said there are different perspectives on the issue. If you accept the most conservative estimate he knows of, that .027 percent of convictions are in error, that means the justice system gets it right 99.973 percent of the time. That’s a pretty good accuracy rate.
But if you or a loved one happen to be in that .027 percent of wrongly convicted people, conservatively estimated at 300 per year nationally, who are found guilty — that’s a terrible tragedy. Even worse, Ross says, is that when the wrong person is sent to prison, the guilty one is free to hurt more people and commit more crimes.
The forum panelists, who represent varying viewpoints within the criminal justice system, include:
- Paula Wissel, law and justice reporter for KPLU-FM, moderator
- Alan Northrop, exonerated in 2010 of a rape conviction in Washington state
- Jacqueline McMurtie, associate professor of law at UW School of Law and director of the Innocence Project Northwest.
- Stephen Ross, assistant professor in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UW Tacoma and director of the Center for Applied Social Cognition Research
- Mark Lindquist, Pierce County Prosecutor (or another representative)
- Lara Zarowsky, policy staff attorney for the Innocence Project Northwest
Wrongful Conviction in Washington State is scheduled for January 11; 6-7:30 p.m.; in Philip Hall, on the UW Tacoma campus. This event is free, but registration is required.
More information about work on eyewitness facial processing and how juries make decisions is online at the Center for Applied Social Cognition Research’s website.