PUBLISHED:April 15, 2011

Brandon Garrett Visits Duke Law

Author Brandon Garrett visited Duke Law last week to discuss his recent book, “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” and shared his recommendations for improving the criminal justice system and reducing wrongful convictions.

Garrett’s research for the book examined 250 exoneration cases since 1989; each of those individuals was released after the discovery of exculpatory evidence that cleared their names. On average, it takes 15 years for an exoneration after a wrongful conviction. And in almost half of those cases, the new evidence inculpates the actual attacker. It’s hard enough to imagine spending 15 years behind bars as an innocent person, but it’s also troubling to learn that often, the actual attacker has gone on to commit other serious felonies over the time period they were at large.

Garrett said that he hopes his book will lead to better police and prosecutorial practices to ensure the innocent do not end up behind bars.

“We can’t give back the years, but hopefully we can dedicate ourselves to learning what went wrong,” Garrett said.

Garrett proposes several simple solutions to help attack this challenging issue that he says will only benefit law enforcement. He makes four suggestions in his book that he believes will dramatically reduce the number of wrongful convictions.

1. Police should use double-blind procedures when conducting line-ups for identification of suspects.

2. Police should record all interrogation proceedings.

3. Police need internal quality control measures to ensure accuracy and fairness during investigations.

4. Police should adopt uniform guidelines for determining scientific conclusions regarding evidence.

Garrett says these recommendations aim primarily at reducing the number of witness misidentifications and false confessions – the leading causes of wrongful convictions.

“What is so unsettling about these cases is that [the exonerations] happen by happenstance with new DNA testing, so the question is what other seemingly strong evidence might be flawed?” Garrett said.

Garrett says often, without the exculpatory DNA evidence, the cases against the innocent may seem strong, and that well-intentioned but poorly executed police procedures can lead to the admission of evidence that points to the wrong people.

Garrett also hopes that students realize they each have a role to play.

“We all have a responsibility to make sure law enforcement operates in a legitimate and responsible way,” he said.