Media, Scholars Often Become Condemned's Last Hope 

March 8, 2000

By Steve Weinberg 

 "My experience as a newspaper reporter and author taught me that claims of innocence from convicted criminals are often made, seldom proved, and usually refuted," Edward Humes writes in his new book, Mean Justice: A Town's Terror, a Prosecutor's Power, a Betrayal of Innocence. 

So it was against his better judgment five years ago that Humes accepted four boxes of documents from a private investigator concerning the case People of Kern County vs. Patrick O'Dale Dunn. The investigator, Laura Lawhon, had 
become convinced that her client -- a businessman and former school principal -- had been wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife in Bakersfield, Calif. He is serving a life sentence. 

Humes had won a Pulitzer Prize at The Orange County Register and had since written four books about the criminal justice system. So Lawhon asked Humes if he would examine the Dunn case. As Humes dug in, somewhat reluctantly, his skepticism disappeared. As he learned more about the case during visits to Kern County, he concluded that wrongful convictions occur more often than he had ever imagined. 

In Chicago, journalists David Protess and Rob Warden had investigated apparent wrongful convictions many years before Humes. Their first book in 1993 helped the parents of a slain 7-year-old girl clear their names. A more recent book, A Promise of Justice: The Eighteen-Year Fight to Save Four Innocent Men details the reporting that freed four people convicted of rape and murder; two narrowly escaped execution. 

Northwestern students join crusade 

The two inmates most likely would have been executed if Warden had accepted the conventional wisdom that all prisoners are guilty. Warden became involved after receiving a letter bearing the return address Condemned Unit, Box 711, Menard, Ill. It arrived out of the blue in 1981 at Chicago Lawyer magazine, where Warden was the editor. Managing editor Margaret Roberts opened it. After skimming it, she asked Warden whether she should check into the 
prisoner's claims of innocence. Warden replied offhandedly, "No harm in taking a look at the testimony he claims is perjured." 

Roberts did take a look when she could squeeze the time. The more she learned, the more horrified she became. Fourteen years later, with no justice in sight despite published stories by Roberts, Warden and other journalists 
who followed their lead, Protess, a Northwestern University journalism professor, agreed to help. He enlisted some of his students, who looked at the case for course credit. The four convicts were freed largely because Warden, Protess and the students found exonerating evidence. Then they found evidence that led to the real perpetrators. 

Unfortunately, as cases like these suggest, the phenomenon of wrongful convictions is not as rare as most people would like to believe. After searching newspaper and magazine clip files, commercial computer databases, Internet sites and books, I turned up hundreds of wrongful conviction cases, learning about new ones almost every week. 

This is not a bleeding-heart crusade. Rather, it is all about law and order. Every time a man or woman is wrongfully accused, arrested, tried, convicted and incarcerated, an actual perpetrator is still at large, perhaps murdering, raping or stealing again. Furthermore, the wrongful convictions bring unimaginable pain not only to the accused, but also to that person's family and friends. Certain of the defendant's innocence, all those people lose trust in the criminal justice system, a loss of trust that erodes the system's workings further. 

Conference highlights problem 

As a journalist, I am a relative newcomer to the world of wrongful convictions. Yet even as a recent initiate, I receive pleas regularly to review convictions. Some I dismiss as impractical, given my limited time and budget. Others I dismiss as ultimately unknowable. After all those dismissals, though, I have a stack of cases on which I have done enough research to raise reasonable doubt of guilt in my mind. 

Many nights I have trouble sleeping, knowing how much more I could be doing for those imprisoned who perhaps should be free. How do they ever sleep peacefully? How do their loved ones? 

It has been somewhat satisfying to watch the conventional wisdom come around in the past five years, thanks in large part to the efforts of journalists and academics. A turning point occurred last November during the National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty. 

Held at Northwestern University, it brought together many of the then 74 death row prisoners who had been exonerated and freed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. 

Every system makes mistakes 

Because the news media finally had an event to cover, rather than seemingly isolated cases, the publicity before, during and after the conference turned out to be immense. How could any reader or viewer ignore so many gut-wrenching instances of police, prosecutors, judges and juries being mistaken? 

Although many writers and consumers of news are beginning to accept the larger-than-acknowledged percentage of wrongful conviction cases, those inside the system, especially prosecutors, are arguing against the exposes. Most criminal cases are brought against guilty defendants, the prosecutors argue. Every system makes mistakes. 

So what is an acceptable margin of error when it comes to convicting innocent men and women? One percent? Five percent? Higher? If a pharmaceutical manufacturer sells a prescription medicine that causes the death of even one 
consumer, many of us say that the one death is unacceptable. Yet a much higher number of wrongful convictions seems to be acceptable, especially given the notion that most of the defendants are habitual criminals who got away with some other offense earlier in life. 

Warning signs in unlawful cases 

Prosecutors or anybody else should not consider the amount of wrongful convictions acceptable. 

There are common denominators in almost every wrongful conviction case: a lack of physical evidence; questionable eyewitness testimony; jailhouse informants who are compensated for talking; second-rate legal representation, especially from overworked public defenders; rogue police officers; prosecutors more concerned with conviction rates than with fair play; expert witnesses who will say almost anything for the right fee; and prosecution-oriented judges unwilling to speak up when they suspect an innocent person is being railroaded. 

If journalists and jurors, as well as those who make their living inside the system, would evaluate every criminal case while focusing on the warning signs, wrongful convictions would almost certainly decrease. 

Steven Weinberg is an correspondent in Missouri.

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