Martin '11 and Tedford '11: Searching for Innocence in Trial Transcripts
Innocent until proven guilty. Well, at least that's the idea. Sometimes, however, the system fails and innocent people go to jail for crimes they did not commit. Post-conviction DNA testing has helped exonerate almost 240 men and women serving someone else's jail time, but it can only free those convicted in cases in which the real perpetrator had left behind biological evidence — assuming, of course, that all related evidence has not since been destroyed.
With a focus on the eyewitness testimony, we are working with Professor Brandon Garrett, poring over transcripts of the pre-trial hearings, trials and post-conviction motions that led to the conviction and eventual exoneration of those the justice system failed to protect.
We are searching for answers to questions such as how the defendant first came to the attention of police, whether affirmative evidence of innocence was presented at trial, and whether there was any suggestion by police either before or after an eyewitness identification that would tend to affect how certain the witness feels about his or her choice from a lineup or photo array.
Once we find them, the answers are entered into a database that with some fancy econometrics and some not-so-fancy "big-picture" analysis that will hopefully yield some insight into how the system failed in the first place so that we can better protect the innocent in the future. (Exoneree Post-Conviction Data Site)
In one trial transcript we found this statement from a prosecutor:
"There are lot more people running around here loose that are guilty of the commission of the crime that were found not guilty by juries, than there are of the conviction of innocent people. Very seldom do you ever hear of somebody being convicted and they were in fact innocent."
This really highlights the problem with prosecutors' (and juries') mentalities when determining guilt or innocence, particularly when the defendant has a criminal record. They assume that someone who was previously convicted is a repeat offender, and are unwilling to consider the possibility of wrongful convictions.
Similarly, even when a defendant doesn't have a criminal record, comments like this one basically tell juries to err on the side of finding the defendant guilty to ensure that actual perpetrators aren't going free.
Here's an example of the kind of testimony we are looking at, from the trial of Kevin Lee Green, who was convicted of assault and attempted murder of his wife and murder of his unborn child:
Prosecutor:Now as you see Kevin here in the courtroom, are you sure that it was Kevin that did it that night?
Prosecutor:You're absolutely sure?
Prosecutor:Did you see Kevin, see his face?
This is a compelling discovery because the victim in this case knew the accused, was married to him, and yet was still wrong. After the attack, the victim suffered memory loss and brain damage that affects her ability to communicate even what she does remember.
It's unclear how the victim came to believe that it was her husband who attacked her, though the defense attorney attempted to establish some kind of suggestion either from the psychiatrist, speech pathologist or family members during her recovery.
The real perpetrator, who looks nothing like the accused, turned out to be a serial rapist and later confessed to this and other attacks in part because he felt bad for Kevin Green.