Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong

March 16, 2011Duke Law News

Wednesday, April 6
12:15 pm - 1:15 pm

Room 3041
Open to the public

Brandon Garrett, from the University of Virginia School of Law, will present a lively discussion on his new book entitled "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong." Garrett took a microscopic and unprecedented look at the first 250 DNA exonerations in the U.S., reviewing trial transcripts and numerous other source documents to identify what went wrong in those cases. His investigation revealed larger patterns of lawyer incompetence, prosecutorial abuse, and plain error. He will talk about those and other weaknesses in our criminal justice system, including unsound forensic evidence, poor police work, psychological biases, and more.

Book Description


On January 20, 1984, Earl Washington—defended for all of forty minutes by a lawyer who had never tried a death penalty case—was found guilty of rape and murder in the state of Virginia and sentenced to death. After nine years on death row, DNA testing cast doubt on his conviction and saved his life. However, he spent another eight years in prison before more sophisticated DNA technology proved his innocence and convicted the guilty man.

DNA exonerations have shattered confidence in the criminal justice system by exposing how often we have convicted the innocent and let the guilty walk free. In this unsettling in-depth analysis, Brandon Garrett examines what went wrong in the cases of the first 250 wrongfully convicted people to be exonerated by DNA testing.

Based on trial transcripts, Garrett’s investigation into the causes of wrongful convictions reveals larger patterns of incompetence, abuse, and error. Evidence corrupted by suggestive eyewitness procedures, coercive interrogations, unsound and unreliable forensics, shoddy investigative practices, cognitive bias, and poor lawyering illustrates the weaknesses built into our current criminal justice system. Garrett proposes practical reforms that rely more on documented, recorded, and audited evidence, and less on fallible human memory.

Very few crimes committed in the United States involve biological evidence that can be tested using DNA. How many unjust convictions are there that we will never discover? Convicting the Innocent makes a powerful case for systemic reforms to improve the accuracy of all criminal cases.

Official Book Website

About the Author


Brandon L. Garrett is a Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, where he has taught since 2005. His research and teaching interests include criminal procedure, wrongful convictions, habeas corpus, corporate crime, civil rights, civil procedure and constitutional law. Garrett attended Columbia Law School, where he was an articles editor of the Columbia Law Review and a Kent Scholar. After graduating, he clerked for the Hon. Pierre N. Leval of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He then worked as an associate at Neufeld, Scheck & Brustin LLP in New York City. Garrett’s recent research includes studies of DNA exonerations and organizational prosecutions. Garrett recently published a book, "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong," published by Harvard University Press.
Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong
Brandon Garrett