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Innocent: Inside Wrongful Conviction Cases

Scott Christianson
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 196
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Innocent graphically documents forty-two recent criminal cases to find evidence of shocking miscarriages of justice, especially in murder cases. Based upon interviews with more than 200 people and reviews of hundreds internal case files, court records, smoking-gun memoranda, and other documents, Scott Christianson gets inside the legal cases, revealing the mistakes, abuses, and underlying factors that led to miscarriages of justice, while also describing how determined prisoners, post-conviction attorneys, advocates, and journalists struggle against tremendous odds to try to win their exonerations.The result is a powerful work that recounts the human costs of a criminal justice system gone awry, and shows us how wrongful convictions can - and do - happen everywhere.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-9021-2
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Some hard-liners deny that anyone ever gets wrongly convicted. Those in prison, they say, must be guilty of something—otherwise they wouldn’t be imprisoned. As they see it, reversals, vacations, or dismissals don’t necessarily prove that the defendant was really innocent—just that he somehow “got off.” Only the guilty get legally executed; a prisoner freed from death row by DNA demonstrates that “the system works”; the fact that the defendant was erroneously convicted and imprisoned, maybe for years, before an appellate court addressed the problem to them simply represents an inconvenience. Indeed, as far as some naysayers are concerned,...

  5. 1 Presumed Guilty
    (pp. 17-25)

    Voltaire said, “It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one”; and Blackstone wrote, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.” Many Americans naturally assume that accused persons are considered innocent until proven guilty, that our adversarial legal system protects the innocent, and that any rare miscarriages of justice brought to light will ultimately be corrected. In fact, however, the presumption of innocence isn’t guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. At least, that is what the Supreme Court concluded inHerrera v. Collins(1993), when it found...

  6. 2 Mistaken Identification
    (pp. 27-65)

    For more than seventy years, studies of wrongful conviction have ascribed one of the leading causes to mistaken witness identification. In his pioneering outline of sixty-five instances where the person convicted was “completely innocent” of the crime, Borchard (1932) found it to be a contributing factor in more than half the cases. Based on a national survey of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, sheriffs, and police, C. Ronald Huff, Arye Rattner, and Edward Sagarin (1996) found that mistaken identification figured in more than 52 percent of the wrongful convictions. Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer (2000), included mistaken identification as...

  7. 3 Eyewitness Perjury
    (pp. 67-91)

    Things are often not as they seem. Sometimes the key eyewitness is intentionally lying—to protect himself/herself or someone else, or for some other purpose. This is another reason that eyewitness testimony must be carefully scrutinized before it is used as criminal evidence.

    In 1981, Nathaniel (Nate) Carter was arrested for the fatal stabbing of his former mother-in-law in Queens County, based exclusively on the testimony of his ex-wife, Delissa. Represented by a series of court-appointed counsel, Carter was convicted of murder and sentenced to twenty-five years to life. He was thirty-one years old.

    There it might have remained, except...

  8. 4 Ineffective Counsel
    (pp. 93-99)

    Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling ofGideon v. Wainwright(1963), New York and other states have been constitutionally required to provide counsel to all eligible persons in criminal proceedings. County Law Article 18-B mandates that each county allocate funds for the assignment of counsel to all indigent criminal defendants.

    But New York’s patchwork of public defense systems, which has never been adequately funded or regulated, often teeters on the brink of collapse. In 2000 a series byThe New York Timesreported that in New York City the number of lawyers representing indigent defendants had dropped to twelve hundred,...

  9. 5 False Confessions
    (pp. 101-121)

    A confession is considered one of the strongest forms of evidence of guilt in criminal law—so much so that it can dominate everything else presented at trial. For that reason, police and prosecutors have always done everything they can to get the suspect to admit his guilt.

    For decades, police officers in New York and throughout the United States routinely used brute force to obtain confessions and guilty pleas. In the 1880s, Captain Cornelius Williams of the New York Police Department explained how officers were trained to beat suspects into admitting guilt, so the criminal didn’t “beat the charges.”...

  10. 6 Police Misconduct
    (pp. 123-129)

    Sloppy, lazy, or fabricated police work is a common ingredient in wrongful convictions, but it seldom figures as a stated cause of reversals. That is because shoddy police investigation is neither a reversible error nor a harm that can be remedied by a tort or civil rights lawsuit. The law doesn’t require the police to pursue every possible lead or piece of evidence, and once they have probable cause to arrest, they aren’t legally required to continue their investigation, even if it is to clear the accused. Even where there is only arguable probable cause, police are generally protected from...

  11. 7 Fabrication of Evidence
    (pp. 131-141)

    There have been cases in which police have been found to have planted guns, supplied drugs, manufactured fingerprints, doctored reports, and engaged in other evidence fabrication practices. In most of them, even where the officers have admitted such actions, they have tried to claim that their targets were “really guilty” or “bad guys.” Occasionally, episodes have been uncovered where the abuses were widespread and systematic. But even in those instances, no official attention has been paid to addressing the wrongful conviction implications of police corruption.

    In June 1992 a major police scandal started to break in central New York. The...

  12. 8 Prosecutorial Misconduct
    (pp. 143-153)

    Prosecutors enjoy the power to make potential life or death decisions, and to ruin or preserve careers. Most of this decision making takes place behind closed doors and without outside scrutiny. The main way they are held accountable is through the electoral process, and most DAs are easily reelected.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a prosecutor is entitled to absolute immunity from “harassing litigation that would divert his time and attention from his official duties.” Some question the wisdom of granting absolute immunity to prosecutors when they have violated constitutional rights. Professor Adele Bernhard contends, “If prosecutors have...

  13. 9 Forensics
    (pp. 155-166)

    For more than a century, progressively newer forensic investigation techniques have given law enforcement more powerful scientific tools to solve crimes. Proponents of fingerprinting, ballistics, microscopic hair and fiber comparison, polygraphy, forensic dentistry, serology inclusion, and, most recently, DNA all have offered almost magical new methods to obtain graphic and strong physical evidence of guilt—or innocence. Depending on the extent to which the courts have allowed their use as legal evidence, some of these techniques have had a significant impact on who is arrested, convicted, or cleared. Yet each technique has its own limitations and potential for abuse.


  14. 10 Selected Wrongful Conviction Cases
    (pp. 167-186)

    Everett Applegate was convicted of murder in Nassau County in 1935, sentenced to death, and executed at Sing Sing on July 16, 1936. He was convicted based on the unsubstantiated testimony of his codefendant, who had previously been acquitted in two other murders. The prosecutor refused to support clemency for either defendant. Prison officials continued to assert that Applegate was innocent, and a number of scholarly studies have continued to list this case as a wrongful execution.

    Miguel Arroyo was convicted of manslaughter in Kings County in 1965 for killing a boy who was fighting outside his store. The trial...

  15. Appendix
    (pp. 187-190)
  16. Selected References
    (pp. 191-193)
  17. Resources
    (pp. 194-195)
  18. About the Author
    (pp. 196-196)