The Innocence Commission
Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Restoring the Criminal Justice System
Publication Year: 2007
Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2008
DNA testing and advances in forensic science have shaken the foundations of the U.S. criminal justice system. One of the most visible results is the exoneration of inmates who were wrongly convicted and incarcerated, many of them sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. This has caused a quandary for many states: how can claims of innocence be properly investigated and how can innocent inmates be reliably distinguished from the guilty? In answer, some states have created "innocence commissions" to establish policies and provide legal assistance to the improperly imprisoned.
The Innocence Commission describes the creation and first years of the Innocence Commission for Virginia (ICVA), the second innocence commission in the nation and the first to conduct a systematic inquiry into all cases of wrongful conviction. Written by Jon B. Gould, the Chair of the ICVA, who is a professor of justice studies and an attorney, the author focuses on twelve wrongful conviction cases to show how and why wrongful convictions occur, what steps legal and state advocates took to investigate the convictions, how these prisoners were ultimately freed, and what lessons can be learned from their experiences.
Gould recounts how a small band of attorneys and other advocates — in Virginia and around the country — have fought wrongful convictions in court, advanced the subject of wrongful convictions in the media, and sought to remedy the issue of wrongful convictions in the political arena. He makes a strong case for the need for Innocence Commissions in every state, showing that not only do Innocence Commissions help to identify weaknesses in the criminal justice system and offer workable improvements, but also protect society by helping to ensure that actual perpetrators are expeditiously identified, arrested, and brought to trial. Everyone has an interest in preventing wrongful convictions, from police officers and prosecutors, who seek the latest and best investigative techniques, to taxpayers, who want an efficient criminal justice system, to suspects who are erroneously pursued and sometimes convicted.
Free of legal jargon and written for a general audience, The Innocence Commission is instructive, informative, and highly compelling reading.
Published by: NYU Press
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In December 2005, the ABC television network issued a press release announcing a new project to “to overturn wrongful convictions, liberate the falsely accused and discover the identity of those really to blame.”1 Rather than heralding an advocacy organization, however, ABC’s release concerned a new television series it would air, called In Justice. According to Stephen...
1 History and Background
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Twenty years ago, the claim that innocent people had been wrongly convicted of serious crimes would have been “treated with general incredulity.” By 2001, however, a “Harris Poll found 94 percent of Americans believed that innocent defendants are sometimes executed.” 1 How did we get to this point? Many observers point their fingers at DNA testing, saying the exonerations that came to light in the late 1990s made it impossible to deny that the...
2 The Innocence Commission for Virginia
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It is sometimes said that we academicians live in an ivory tower, weighing philosophical issues under ideal conditions without having to get our hands dirty in “the real world.” By the same token, lawyers in private practice, particularly those in large law firms, are sometimes accused of trading ideals for wealth and prestige. Who cares about justice, it’s said, when you...
3 The Cases
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Many of us tend to view wrongful convictions through a model of cause and effect. We know there was a grievous error; we presume there was a cause; and we seek to uncover the trigger in order to prevent its harmful effects in the future. Noted criminologist Richard Leo has labeled this the “familiar plot” of scholarship on wrongful conviction, in which the supposedly “well-known” causes of wrongful conviction appear to necessitate a series of...
4 An Unmet Obligation
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It is difficult to confront the deficiencies of the criminal justice process that can send innocent people to prison or allow the guilty to roam free without feeling compelled to prevent future errors from occurring. Whether we identify with the innocent suspect, who is convicted and left to serve time for a crime he did not commit; the helpless victim, who is attacked by a criminal who should...
5 Putting It All Together
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The year 2009 will mark two decades since the first DNA exoneration. Over that time we seem to have reached the point at which virtually all the studies of wrongful convictions have come to similar conclusions. Among the most recent reports were those led by Professor Samuel Gross and the law firm...
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About the Author
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Jon B. Gould is an associate professor at George Mason University, where he is director of the Center for Justice, Law & Society. He is a former U.S. Supreme Court fellow and is the chair of the Innocence Commission for Virginia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization helping prevent wrongful convictions...
Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2007