It’s a time where America seems to be more divided than ever: those who trust the people who hold office versus those who don’t. Wrongful convictions throughout the country seem to do nothing but add fuel to the fire and present another reason to cling to public distrust. Even though exonerations have been at an all time high for the past decade, it does not ease public anxiety to hear about innocent exonerees whose convictions date back to as late as the mid-60s.
Samuel Gross, founder and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, told Time Magazine in an interview: “Many prosecutors, police officers and judges have learned that sending innocent people to prison is a constant risk—not a once-in-a-lifetime novelty.”
A colorful picture of the wrongful conviction epidemic is painted in Houston, Texas, a city that contributed to 15 percent of all exonerations between the years 2010 and 2016. In order to create a more trustworthy judiciary system, Houston and Harris County police investigated a problem that, according to Gross, is “likely systemic across the United States.”
Several field tests used on site to identify illegal drugs at crime scenes have been around since the 1970s and cost less than two dollars. These tests work by changing color when illegal drugs are added to the test kit. However, they also change color when they come into contact with dozens of other chemical compounds, thus contributing to false positives. The Harris County district attorney quickly determined that there was a backlog of drug cases in which convictions relied on field tests that had never been sent to a lab for confirmation as evidence. As a result, Harris County does not accept guilty pleas until substances have been tested in a lab. Clark County, the county that includes Las Vegas, followed suit and is now taking a second look at convictions based on field test evidence.
Though these exonerations are a step in the right direction toward developing a more trustworthy judiciary, Gross declared that we must do more and encouraged progress through finding deeper meaning using evidence in wrongful convictions.
“Why were you stopped in the first place? Why were you asked to get out of the car? Why were you searched?” Gross said.
Racial disparity plays a large role in wrongful convictions. Almost half of all exonerations from 2010 to date are those of African Americans compared to 39 percent white exonerees.
According to a study by Time Magazine, black individuals face racial bias at every single step of the system and “are more likely to be targets and receive harsher sentences than white people.” The same study found that black men historically have received sentences that are 5 to 10 percent longer than those of white men for similar crimes.
Fortunately, many offices at every door of the judiciary system seem to be learning from the harsh history of racial biases contributing to wrongful convictions. Attorney General Loretta Lynch established a bias recognition training program for all federal law enforcement divisions under the Obama Administration. Similarly, New York state has recently required jurors to receive racial bias lessons. A single analysis of 39 different studies by The New York Times determined that “participants were one-and-a-half times more likely to falsely identify the face of a stranger of a different race.”
In order to prevent wrongful convictions, New York state’s highest court, the U.S. Court of Appeals, ruled “in criminal cases where the identifying witness and defendant appear to be of different races, the defense is entitled to have the jurors told about the unreliability of cross-race witness identification if requested.”
Wrongful convictions do nothing but demolish trust and wreak chaos in every direction. Thankfully, as a nation, we are doing more to prevent these convictions entirely and steer government distrust in a new direction.