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Criminal Justice Advocate Says Recognizing Wrongful Convictions Is Only Half The Struggle


The recognition of a wrongful conviction is meant to fix an injustice, but it also creates upheaval in the lives of the accused and the victims.

Lara Bazelon knows the process well. She's a law professor and the director of the Criminal Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Programs at the University of San Francisco.

During a recent episode of KERA's Think, Bazelon talked about the hard road to exoneration as part of the One Crisis Away: The Price of Prison series.

Interview highlights

On determinants of wrongful convictions:

One factor is police and prosecutorial misconduct. The desire to win at all costs overcomes the obligation to follow the rules, and police and prosecutors may withhold evidence. Or, they may coax confessions out of people who are not actually guilty of what they're confessing.

There's also the problem of faulty eyewitness identification, where a witness really truly believes that they are pointing to the guilty person, but they are in fact mistaken. Many of these situations arise when the victim is one race and the accused is a different race.

There is a lot of research dating back to the '60s and the '70s that talks about how we are very bad at identifying people outside of our own racial group. One popular theory is that, because we live pretty segregated lives, we're not used to seeing people of different races on a regular basis in the same way that we are used to seeing people of our own race.

On why people admit to crimes they didn't commit:

I think what's so powerful about confessions — particularly to really heinous crimes — is that jurors, who are regular citizens hearing about them, think no one would possibly admit to this unless they actually did it.

I think we really saw it during "Making a Murderer" with Brendan Dassey. What happens in these interrogations is that the police have all kinds of psychological tactics to get in the person's head, suggest things to them and feed them information. In some cases, they can actually convince them that somehow they may have been responsible.

On the broken indigent-defense system:

Bad lawyers are another cause of wrongful convictions. In many states, indigent defense lawyers are paid so horribly that the people who end up taking these jobs are not particularly good at them. I will say there are some public defender offices that are incredibly well-funded and have amazing and smart people working there.

Then, there are other offices that are underfunded, and even with people who go into it with their heart in the right place, they get completely overwhelmed. They end up almost as part of a processing factory, where they're just processing people through the system. They don't have time to really spend with their clients or investigate the case. They end up getting people to plead guilty who really shouldn't.

Miguel Perez is an assistant producer at KERA. He produces local content for Morning Edition and KERA News. He also produces The Friday Conversation, a weekly interview series with North Texas newsmakers.