So, I’ve been reading a lot about crime recently, in both fiction and nonfiction, though strangely for completely different purposes. My nonfiction crime reading began most recently when I ran across an article on Slate.com which linked to this incredibly in depth article in the Texas Monthly describing the wrongful conviction of a man named Michael Morton. The Slate article also mentioned the New Yorker piece from 2009– about Cameron Todd Willingham who was convicted of killing his family and executed before he was posthumously exonerated–which I haven’t read, but which Rena read at the time and related to me in great detail. At the same time I was reading about these men, my VOYA editor sent me two books for review in a series called Real Justice by Cynthia J. Faryon (published by Lorimer). The books are about two teens in Canada who were wrongly imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. So the question is: how did all of these people get convicted. Well, the Slate piece recommended a book which I’ve almost finished called Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong by Brandon L. Garrett (Harvard, 2011).
Garrett’s book collects data on the trials and post-conviction activity of the 250 people (through 2010 when he began the book) who had been exonerated using DNA evidence, and looks at why these (mostly) men were able to be convicted, and had many appeals denied, spending an average of 13 years in prison, despite the fact that we now know they were innocent. Garrett goes into a great deal of detail about the trials and the various faults but the three pieces that jumped out the most to me were these: 1) misidentification by eyewitnesses, 2) false confessions, 3) and invalid or incorrect forensic evidence.
Now, on eyewitness testimony, I read a number of years ago Elizabeth Loftus’s Eyewitness Testimony (Harvard, 1996), which affected me profoundly. Loftus is a cognitive researcher and she lays out all the ways in which the human memory can be tricked into believing things, and specifically shows the ways eyewitnesses to crimes can be (inadvertantly or intentionally) coached into believing they saw someone or something which they did not. She also talks at length about how these memories become reinforced over time, so that at the time of trial most eyewitnesses claim to be absolutely sure of their identification, even when they originally hesitated. So, the eyewitness testimony portion of Garrett’s book was no a revelation to me, but it was a good reminder of something that many people still don’t know: that eyewitness testimony is among the least reliable forms of evidence, and yet it is considered by juries to be the most reliable.
The false confessions were also not a total unknown to me–especially the types of pressure that can be put on people to confess–but I was shocked at some of the details. Garrett shows that many of these men confessed in great detail, supposedly relating information that only the guilty party could have known. Since we know that they were innocent, Garret asks how this is possible, and discusses the various ways (again, both intentional and unintentional) that police and prosecutors can subtly give a suspect information they shouldn’t know.
Finally, there was the forensic evidence. Garrett talks about how some of the forensic tests submitted at trials (such as hair analysis) have basically no science whatsoever behind them. In other cases, the science was good, but the scientists exaggerated the conclusions that could be drawn, or botched the actual tests.
I know I’ve gone on at great length about this, but it is because I find it utterly fascinating when compared to the other crime reading which I have been doing, which is fictional mysteries. I’m (slowly) working up a post on mysteries for Adult Books 4 Teens, and so I’m reading a lot more mysteries than I have in a long time. I also watch a few of the lighter mystery shows on TV like Bones, or (before it ended) Monk. And despite many many differences in the types of mysteries that are out there, there is still a pretty fundamental sense (at least in the books I’m reading) that the none of the issues Garrett discusses exist. Eyewitnesses can be counted on, unless they are purposely lying. Only the guilty confess, unless they are lying to protect someone. And forensic evidence is basically never ever wrong. I have no doubt that there are mysteries and thrillers out there that focus on the inherent unknowns of cases, but they are certainly not the ones in the main stream. And when I read books or see movies or TV shows where mistakes are made at trial, it seems like it is almost invariably that a guilty party went free.
So it’s a fascinating disconnect. I’m really enjoying the mysteries I’m reading, and I love it when Hercule Poirot or Monk or Bones makes the logic all sound and then gets a nice tidy confession to wrap it up so that there will be no doubt that they got the right guy. But it is bracing to read about these true stories where police, prosecutors, juries, and judges were all completely convinced that the person in question was guilty–everything seemed to point to it. Except that they weren’t. I could talk at much more length about the legal, political, and moral implications of this topic, but I think I’ll leave at the the literary level for now. Any thoughts?