Why Some Jurisdictions Are More Likely to Wrongfully Convict
Barry Scheck is the co-founder and co-director of the Innocence Project, a national organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted people and implements policy reforms to prevent future injustice. Founded in 1988 under the auspices of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the Innocence Project has exonerated hundreds through post-conviction DNA testing. Scheck is also famous for having defended notable clients like O.J. Simpson, Hedda Nussbaum, Louise Woodward, and Abner Louima.
Scheck is currently a professor of law at Cardozo and a commissioner on New York's Forensic Science Review Board, a body that regulates all of the state's crime and forensic DNA laboratories. He is first vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and serves on the board of the National Institute of Justice's Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence. In 2001, along with Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufeld, Scheck co-authored the book "Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted."
Question: Are there factors that make a jurisdiction more likely to wrongfully convict someone?
Barry Scheck: Any jurisdiction where there is not adequate funding for criminal defense lawyers is a jurisdiction at risk, and that is so many in this country. It’s a longstanding and continuing crisis that we do not adequately fund public defenders or court appointed lawyers because nothing guarantees the conviction of an innocent person more than a lawyer that is not adequately funded or not competent to do the job. You know it is an adversary system and we really do depend upon a vigorous criminal defense function in order to make sure that everything is being done right within the system because if police or prosecutors cross the line in their prosecution of somebody even that is guilty or if the forensic laboratories for example are not examined in every case so that we make sure that they’re doing their jobs correctly you know the whole system will implode on itself and we’re seeing that everywhere. I can rip any headline, so take a look at North Carolina. North Carolina recently there was an exoneration where it was demonstrated that one of the people within the state crime lab had done a presumptive test for the existence of blood. It came out positive and then there is a follow up test you’re supposed to do to see if that really is blood and the follow up test was negative, but the lab only reported the first presumptive test that was positive and that was a regular procedure, so now they have just finished an audit of old cases where that was going on at the SBI and it has created a huge crisis within the North Carolina Criminal Justice System and there is yet more to do looking at other disciplines within the crime lab to see whether we were just getting a reliable result.
The Houston Police Department Crime Lab had an extremely famous scandal where Mike Bromwich who actually had done an analysis of the FBI lab when he was the inspector general in the Reno Justice Department, he did a huge reexamination of the Houston Police Department Crime Lab and literally found that they were not doing a proper job in their serology section in virtually all the cases and this led to not just wrongful convictions, but real assailants getting away with it. I mean they weren’t even… They would find stains, semen, saliva and blood stains that were probative and they wouldn’t even do the tests. It was a gigantic scandal and the same thing has happened in West Virginia years ago with a fellow named Fred Zane where they demonstrated that he was quote, unquote dry-labbing. That is he wasn’t even doing the tests, but he would come in and give results you know so you ask yourself well obviously that is a bad forensic laboratory, but where were the criminal defense lawyers? Why weren’t they challenging any of this and finding out that they weren’t even doing the tests? Same thing happened in Montana. Same thing happened in Oklahoma City with a woman named Joyce Skillkristen [ph]. These all led to wrongful convictions, some in capital cases. A huge problem and so what we’ve found now is that the forensic science community has recognized that this is a very serious issue and we have to have real quality assurance there and there are other problems that I’m sure we’ll talk about concerning the reliability of these forensic tests, but your question you know to me is well what jurisdictions have more wrongful convictions than others. It’s really hard to know. You know tell me about the quality of their criminal defense bar. Tell me the quality of their crime laboratories. Tell me about the quality of their police forces and prosecutors and you know then we have an answer, so the truth is it can happen anywhere and anybody who thinks otherwise is only kidding themselves.
"Nothing guarantees the conviction of an innocent person more than a lawyer that is not adequately funded or not competent to do the job," says Scheck.