It is difficult to fathom that thirty-nine innocent Texans have spent more than five hundred years in prison for crimes they did not commit. This alarming figure is detailed in a new report issued this week by The Justice Project: Convicting the Innocent: Texas Justice Derailed.
Unfortunately, five hundred years does not reflect the actual amount of time all innocent people have spent wrongfully imprisoned in Texas because the report only focuses on individuals who were exonerated by DNA evidence, which is available in only a fraction of cases. Each DNA exoneration exposes flaws in our criminal justice system that lead to unreliable evidence and inaccurate verdicts in our courts. It is time Texas and the rest of the country confront these flaws and learn from these costly mistakes.
The costs of wrongful convictions are profound, and begin with the devastation suffered by the wrongfully convicted person and family. Everyone involved in these cases is affected, from jurors who are presented with faulty evidence, to the crime victims who are denied the justice of seeing the real perpetrator convicted. Further, every wrongful conviction undermines public safety. When the wrong person is prosecuted and convicted, the actual perpetrator remains free to commit more crimes—crimes that could have been prevented.
While some error is inevitable in a system run by human beings, many of the mistakes leading to wrongful convictions can be prevented with the right safeguards in place. An analysis of all wrongful convictions in Texas reveals distinct patterns in the types of mistakes that lead to convicting the innocent. As a result, these patterns guide a clear path toward reforms that will improve the reliability of evidence in our courts.
The overwhelming majority of wrongful convictions in Texas, as is the case in the rest of the country, are a result of eyewitness misidentification. Decades of research on eyewitness memory reveals that changes in the way we present photo and live lineups can reduce the risk of error.
Despite the fact that more accurate procedures have been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice and other organizations for years, most police departments do not follow them. In fact, the vast majority of police departments in Texas do not have any written procedures for conducting lineups. By requiring police to follow written policies that include proven strategies for reducing error, Texas can improve the reliability of eyewitness evidence and significantly reduce the risk that a false identification will lead to another wrongful conviction.
Eyewitness reform is a small part of the broader reform needed to effectively prevent wrongful convictions in Texas. Texas is long overdue in requiring electronic recording of custodial interrogations to false confessions, which are a documented reality. Unreliable testimony from informants must be subjected to greater scrutiny and more transparency. Forensic oversight should be improved and its standards strengthened. Until these reforms are implemented, Texas will continue to make preventable mistakes in criminal trials, and wrongful convictions will continue to occur. Each wrongful conviction undermines public confidence in our criminal justice system. It is time the state of Texas to takes action to restore public confidence and ensure that no more innocent people are convicted of crimes they did not commit.
More than five hundred years of time spent for wrongful convictions is more than enough of a reason for Texas to take action.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.