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Wrongful Convictions? Blame the Journalists

Steve Weinberg paints a grim picture of the criminal justice system and its track record of getting it wrong. "There is no definitive research showing the precise scope of the wrongful-conviction problem. It is beyond question, however, that not just a few but many innocent people have been sent to prison, sometimes for decades." His own investigation of 11,452 criminal prosecutions found that 2,000 were reversed on appeal and that prosecutorial misconduct resulted in convictions of at least 32 innocent people. Separate research by the Innocence Project into 23 DNA exonerations in New York found that police had identified the actual perpetrators in 10 cases, nine of whom had gone on to commit new crimes while wrongfully convicted defendants sat in prison.

It is a tangled tale worthy of a John Grisham novel, but Weinberg is not a fiction writer -- he's a journalist, the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and a journalism professor at the University of Missouri. He seems to have little hope that the criminal justice system can heal itself, describing the performance of police and prosecutors in one recently documented wrongful conviction as "incompetent and maybe dishonest." As for defense lawyers, they are often unskilled and too quick to seek a plea bargain, he suggests.

But a third group both shares in the blame and offers hope, he believes. In an article published yesterday, "Innocent Until Reported Guilty," Weinberg blasts journalists for their often spotty and superficial coverage of the criminal justice system. At the same time, he contends, the news media could and should be the most effective bulwark against wrongful convictions.

Until and unless journalists improve their performance, far more innocent people will be imprisoned than the criminal justice system seems likely ever to acknowledge. The logical extension of the preceding statement seems obvious, but I'll say it anyway: Unless journalists get better at covering the justice system, many criminals will continue to go unpunished, free to murder or rape or rob again. So investigating wrongful convictions is not — as perceived by too many police, prosecutors and judges — an assault by soft-on-crime bleeding hearts. Rather, it is an attempt to serve law and order, to improve the administration of justice and to foster faith in the criminal justice system.

So Grisham-worthy is the state of affairs outlined in Weinberg's piece -- which appears in Miller-McCune magazine, the new online publication of the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy in Santa Barbara, Calif. -- that Grisham himself has turned his sights on it in his only nonfiction book, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, as has lawyer/novelist Scott Turow in Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing With the Death Penalty. Journalists need to follow suit and do a better job of covering the courts, argues Weinberg, because "innocent people [are] depending on them, every step of the way."

Footnote: Mark Obbie comments on Weinberg's piece at his blog LawBeat, calling it a "major contribution to the literature of criminal justice journalism," one that "turns the tables on the usual tales of heroic investigative reporters freeing innocent prisoners."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on September 24, 2008 at 08:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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