New study details problems in police evidence gathering

Much as the Federal Aviation Administration studies airplane crashes to find their causes and ways to prevent future accidents, a pair of researchers have done a careful analysis of dozens of known wrongful convictions to see what went wrong.

Their conclusions allege failures of reasoning and evidence gathering that put innocent people in prison, sometimes for decades. They point to a “weak system environment” that fails to learn from mistakes or prevent the same errors from repeating, allowing dangerous criminals stay on the streets.

Looking closely at what went wrong

The two Texas State University criminologists analyzed 50 proven wrongful convictions and other known investigative failures to flag errors of reasoning and perspective contributing to catastrophic outcomes.

They saw an unwillingness to recognize that pressures, pride and drive may compel officers to jump to conclusions. They say investigations focused convicting a suspect more than solving the crime, and alternative views were greeted with intolerance

Prosecutors, in turn, appeared to have a conviction mindset, leading them assume every suspect was guilty and convicting them could be chalked up as a “win” for the team.

They identified a striking effect in which individuals, once considered a suspect, remained a suspect until found guilty and sentenced regardless of other evidence or events.

Learning from fields with a low tolerance for error

The authors assert a need for training in the kinds of event analysis and reasoning used by the FAA to study plane crashes and by medical teams to study procedures and cases with adverse results.

Such “Sentinel Event Reviews” assume that bad outcomes result from breakdowns in the team’s own systems. Instead of assigning blame to individual team members or to external evil-doers, they try to understand what went wrong, and then devise and implement a permanent fix that applies to everyone on the team, top to bottom.

Some prosecutor’s offices have begun implementing such reviews, but the culture of criminal justice has been slow to see them as a global solution to a systemic problem.

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