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Despite the political rifts ripping through our nation, most reasonable people hold two fundamental beliefs about our criminal justice system: The guilty should be held accountable, and the innocent should not be punished. However, for many years a substantial percentage of the public refused to acknowledge that, at times, innocent people are wrongfully convicted. Relatively recent advances in the analysis and use of DNA evidence have helped establish that mistakes have happened, and innocent individuals have been convicted and sentenced for crimes they did not commit. This put to rest any debate over whether such a miscarriage of justice might occur. Today, some spend their time speculating about how many have been wrongfully convicted and debate the scope of the problem. That debate cannot be won with hard evidence. In most cases DNA is not available to establish conclusively whether someone is actually guilty. Instead, we should evaluate how best to secure the kind of justice system we all believe in: one in which the guilty are convicted and the innocent are freed. Step one should be a careful examination of every case that resulted in a wrongful conviction to determine what flaws in the system caused the miscarriage of justice. It is important that all interested groups be represented in this stage, including law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, scientists and judges. Generally when a mishap occurs in our society, authorities investigate what went wrong. When a plane or train crashes, we see federal investigators on the scene almost immediately. Why? Simply to avoid, if possible, another crash under similar circumstances. However, with the exception of a few states, such as North Carolina and now Pennsylvania, there is absolutely no mandated investigation to determine what went wrong when we discover a person has been wrongfully convicted of a crime. If an examination of wrongful convictions were undertaken in each state, we would undoubtedly discover wrongful convictions caused by unintentional erroneous eyewitness identifications, tunnel vision in the investigation of criminal activity, expert testimony without a scientific foundation, shoddy lawyering, witnesses lying under oath and false confessions. Step two would bring the best minds in science and other relevant disciplines to the table for a frank and open discussion about how best to address each systemic flaw. In the specialized and technically savvy world of the 21st century, there are far greater pools of expertise to address these problems than there were in years past. We simply cannot afford to leave anyone out of this important endeavor who may add to our insight and support our problem-solving efforts. When a crime has been committed and an innocent person held accountable, we all suffer. The actual perpetrator remains free to commit additional crimes. The innocent person, and his or her family and friends, are unjustifiably traumatized. The scarce resources of the police, the courts and the correctional system are needlessly taxed. And the victim learns that reliving the offense on the witness stand was for naught, and will have to be repeated if and when the actual perpetrator is prosecuted. Unfortunately, the likelihood of apprehending the actual perpetrator is significantly reduced over time. Cases grow cold, witnesses die or become difficult to locate, and physical evidence may be lost or destroyed. And if and when the wrongful conviction is uncovered, the public’s trust in the justice system diminishes. Therefore, rather than reading about the most recent wrongful conviction in the newspaper and scratching our heads about how the system can fail to do justice, we must view the advent of DNA as creating a wonderful opportunity to learn from our mistakes and find ways of preventing future miscarriages of justice. To do otherwise is a further injustice to society, especially to those who were victimized as a result of past practices. Allan D. Sobel is director of the Arlin M. Adams Center for Law and Society at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa., and the former president of the American Judicature Society.

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