Groups like The Innocence Project have significantly raised public awareness about the issue of wrongful convictions. We would like to think that the criminal justice system produces only fair and accurate outcomes, free of racism and other bias. We would like to think that – but we know better.
A growing number of exoneration cases are providing insight about what kinds of mistakes and biases are likely to lead to a wrongful conviction. One of the most pressing problems is false confessions coerced out of defendants during exhausting interrogations. Many of these defendants are minors without a lawyer or parent there to represent them.
For an example of this problem in New York, you only need to study the 1989 case of the group of teen boys known as the Central Park Five. After a woman was brutally raped one night in the park, the public was outraged and police scrambled to find suspects. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to care whether the suspects they found had actually committed the crime.
The five teen boys – all either black or Hispanic – were interrogated for hours by police. Some had parents present when giving confessions, others didn’t. But the “confessions” they gave came after grueling interrogations in which each boy was lied to and coerced. At trial, jurors saw the videotaped confessions, but not the hours of browbeating that led up them.
After eventually being exonerated, several members of the Central Park Five became activists to prevent wrongful conviction. Recently, one of the men, Raymond Santana, publicly advocated for a bill being considered in the New York State Legislature. It would require police officers to record all interrogations and to take other measures to eliminate bias (both conscious and unconscious).
Since The Innocence Project was formed, 29 people in New York State have been exonerated through DNA evidence. Of those convictions, 14 involved false confessions and 15 involved faulty eyewitness identification. If this common-sense legislation does not pass, we have to ask ourselves how much injustice we are willing to accept.