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If you had spent 20 years in prison for a crime you never committed, that would seem like a long time. If you served as the defense lawyer for the innocent inmate, again, 20 years would seem like a long time. When I think about 20-year spans, they usually seem like a long time to me as well (and I’m not an inmate, not a defense lawyer) — one-third of the years I’ve lived, in fact. In an important sense, however, 20 years seems like a remarkably short time. During those two decades as an investigative journalist exploring flaws in the criminal justice system, I have observed the removal of doubt about the wrongful-conviction phenomenon. Twenty years ago, when I would mention pleas of innocence I heard from inmates or their lawyers or their loved ones, 99 percent of my audience would scoff. “All prisoners say they are innocent,” they would say, often with an edge in their voices. They probably considered me a bleeding-heart journalist. Today, I receive that reaction from perhaps just 5 percent of my audience, and those are usually professional prosecutors. IT STARTED IN THE CLASSROOM I am reminded of this shift in perception by the just-published book The Innocence Commission: Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Restoring the Criminal Justice System, by Jon B. Gould, a George Mason University professor and chair of the Innocence Commission for Virginia. Gould’s interest in wrongful convictions started with a classroom discussion after a student stated that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel meant nothing when appellate courts upheld jury verdicts even though the defense lawyer slept through the trial. Gould’s book is approximately the 300th I have read (no exaggeration) about wrongful convictions. I confess that some of them have begun to seem repetitive. Gould’s book, however, is a masterpiece of the genre. He combines big-picture legal theory with details from a dozen Virginia miscarriages of justice, including mistaken eyewitness identification and prosecutorial misconduct. Gould then employs the mixture to explain the need for dozens of specific, manageable alterations to practices going back decades and sometimes centuries. An example: There is no sound reason for police to conduct lineups and show victims photo arrays in the conventional manner. Rather, social science experiments strongly suggest that elementary alterations in lineup and photo array procedures will yield more reliable evidence and thus a smaller number of wrongful convictions. Few other books about the wrongful-conviction phenomenon have even attempted such a combination of legal theory and details from real-life wrongful conviction cases. Those few have suffered from shrillness, or mundane writing style, or other flaws. The majority of wrongful-conviction books focus on one case and spew breathless prose about the homicide detective or the prosecutor or the forensic lab examiner or whomever is cast as the villain, while the defense attorney is quite often cast as the hero. I except from that indictment, however, the biggest seller of those single-case books — John Grisham’s The Innocent Man. He mostly avoids breathlessness, plus makes sure his heroes and villains are more than one-dimensional. The new material centers on creation of the Innocence Commission for Virginia. As Gould explains, the commission is intended “to investigate the causes of factual exonerations and to recommend measures to prevent such errors in the future.” In my world at least, comprehensive attempts at reform by innocence commissions in Illinois and North Carolina have overshadowed the Virginia effort. After all, the Illinois commission came first, and numbered among its members some high-profile folks, especially bestselling author/lawyer Scott Turow. In North Carolina, no less a personage than the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, I. Beverly Lake, initiated the North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission, a gutsy step by such a member of the legal establishment. Furthermore, North Carolina has taken the next step by creating a blue-ribbon body to review specific cases of miscarried justice, something far more laden with controversy than thick studies. PRIVATE-SECTOR HELP Given its private-sector nature with substantial funding and staffing from eleven large law firms, the Virginia effort demonstrates a unique genesis. Present at the creation were Don Salzman, a Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom lawyer and pro bono counsel; Julia Sullivan, who had just left litigating at Sidley Austin to start her own practice; Misty Thomas, director of the Innocence Project for the National Capital Region; Ginny Sloan, founder of the Constitution Project; and Steve Hanlon, a partner at Holland & Knight. Their accomplishment of publishing a reform agenda in just a few years is impressive. In turn, their accomplishment spawned another accomplishment: Gould’s mind-expanding book. Gould’s book has spawned a number of new thoughts about wrongful convictions. Like me, Gould expresses incredulity that certain police officers, forensic lab personnel, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys never seem to learn from mistakes, thus inexcusably perpetuating wrongful convictions. In one important sense, however, Gould is more measured than I have been, and I plan to moderate my incredulity at least a tad because of what he has written. Let me try to explain: Ever since immersing myself as a journalist in this realm, I have reported and written over and over about the causes of wrongful convictions — suggestive identification procedures used by police and prosecutors that abet mistaken eyewitness testimony; racial prejudices and other manifestations of tunnel vision by law enforcement investigators; poorly equipped crime labs staffed by incompetent or biased personnel; incomplete sharing of discovery materials by prosecutors; coerced confessions, especially of suspects with low IQs or mental disease; encouraging testimony from jailhouse snitches who are known liars; the refusal of policy-makers in all three branches of government to adopt adequate post-conviction remedies; and unprepared or incompetent defense counsel. Because of Gould’s book, I better understand that there are cases in which, even though errors are made, the guilty person is convicted. After all, as Gould wisely notes, “the errors found in wrongful convictions occur in other criminal cases,” and yet the outcome is just — the actual perpetrator is imprisoned, and no wrongful conviction occurs. Maybe, just maybe, by softening my language when explaining why wrongful convictions continue to occur, I will win additional converts to the reform effort — especially prosecutors, many of whom I know are in denial about the breadth and depth of the problem.
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo. He is the co-founder of a newly minted Innocence Project involving the four University of Missouri campuses — in Columbia, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Rolla.

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