Every year in the United States of America, millions of crimes are committed that violate and harm the individual rights, properties, and freedoms that are not only guaranteed to American citizens of this country, but also naturally inherent to mankind as whole. Based on the founding principles of our country, which are derived from the Constitution of these United States, justice is dealt accordingly to the perpetrators of these crimes. While this justice is usually fair, due to certain rights given to those who may be charged with crimes, sometimes an error is made.
A simple mistake, a missing or broken link in the chain that represents the investigation and trial processes, causes an innocent bystander to become caught up in an investigation, and in many cases, can result in a wrongful conviction. This mistake can come in many forms: a mistaken eyewitness identification, a false confession, misconduct of the governing authorities, improper forensic investigation, or even lazy or unskilled litigation by the defense attorneys.
Legal miscarriage like this is not something that should be taken lightly, especially since those affected must not only endure the years spent in prison, but also deal with lost wages, isolation from friends and family, scrutiny from potential employers, and ostracization from their community. According to C. Ronald Huff, director of the Criminal Justice Research Center at Ohio State University, roughly 10,000 United States residents who are not guilty of a crime are convicted every year, a “conservative” estimate of 0. % of the 1,993,880 index crimes used for his research that was completed in 1990 . Even more alarming are the 138 Death Row inmates who have been exonerated sine 1973 as a result of further DNA testing; while anywhere between a concrete group of 8 and another 31 “possible innocents” have been executed in the United States despite evidence that could have left reasonable doubt. The thought that a wrongful conviction could lead to the death of an innocent person is enough to raise alarms and should call for closer attention to detail in criminal investigations and trials.
While many choose to overlook these things and ignore wrongful convictions, adapting a mentality that anybody who is locked up obviously did something to deserve it; it is clear and easy to see that the justice system here in the United States has been, currently is, and can be full of flaws. As of 2005, over 150 people since 1991 have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated by DNA, throughout 31 states, and combined, served over 1800 years of time incarcerated. (American Bar Association, 2005).
Luckily, as forensic investigative technology and techniques improve, and the usage of deoxyribonucleic acid in forensic investigation rises, there have been 268 exonerations of wrongfully convicted defendants who have been exonerated by reopening cases and utilizing DNA testing (Innocence Project). This is where the Innocence Project organization comes in; they make it their responsibility to help those who are wrongfully convicted gain exoneration. One case that is worth noting in particular is that of State of Texas v Cornelius Dupree Jr.
On November 23, 1979, in Dallas, Texas, a 26 year-old woman and her male partner were carjacked by two African American males, who ordered the man to leave and then abducted the woman and subsequently raped her. After the two men finished, they elected not to kill the woman, but rather to steal her rabbit fur coat, and drive off, followed by an attempt to sell the coat a few days later across town. About a month later, in the beginning of December, Cornelius Dupree Jr. nd his friend Anthony Massingil were arrested for a separate and unrelated sexual assault and robbery charge, as they had resembled the descriptions of the perpetrators of said case. It was noted that they did not match the descriptions of the two men from the November carjacking. The male who was present at the incident of the crime was unable to pick either of them out of a police picture lineup. The 26 year-old woman, on the other hand, had pointed them out and identified them as the perpetrators.
Dupree was subsequently charged with one count of aggravated robbery and one count of rape, and put on trial. During litigation, both victims had testified that Dupree was one of the men who carjacked them in November. Disregarding the fact that the two defendants were not originally noticed in police lineups by the male victim, and despite the woman’s repeated mixing up of the two defendants’ identities in court, the jury somehow thought the defense of ‘mistaken identity’ was not possible, and thus both men were found guilty of aggravated robbery.
The jury decided to not indict Dupree on charges of abduction or rape because they had felt any further convictions would not have been very significant; he was already given a sentence of 75 years in prison. After the initial trial, Dupree’s attempts of appealing the decision were rejected three times, because he would not admit to being a sex offender. Throughout his time in incarceration, Dupree maintained his innocence; even turning down two opportunities for early parole, because he would not admit guilt and confess to a crime he did not commit.
In 2006, his case was picked up by The Texas Innocence Project, and by July of 2007, the Innocent Project team requested permission from the state of Texas to test for DNA evidence from pubic hairs and particles, which were recovered off of the female victim’s body during her post-rape medical examination. The tests came back with great news for the men, as the sperm present in the evidence did not match either of the alleged rapists. If Dupree’s DNA was not found on the woman, then it was clear that he did not rape her and therefore, did not perform the robbery and carjacking which he was convicted of.
It would have been impossible for him to have been one of the two men who committed the crime if his DNA was not present, which is why upon seeing the test results, the district attorney’s office backed the Innocence Project’s push for a writ of Habeas Corpus for Dupree, essentially an order for his charges to be dropped and his freedom returned. Cornelius Dupree Jr. became the 41st convicted felon to be exonerated in Texas since 2001; however, the 30 years he served remains the longest amount of time spent incarcerated by a wrongfully convicted prisoner in the state.
If there were any silver lining in this case, it would be this; the state of Texas has the most generous legislation with regards to compensation for undeserved years spent imprisoned- $80,000 per year. Dupree should be receiving a non-taxable, lump sum payment of $2. 4 million dollars from the state of Texas to make up for his lost time. As far as the case itself goes, the facts are clear cut: Dupree was charged with a crime he did not commit, happened to be mistakenly identified from a photo array by one of the victims, and was subsequently convicted for the crime.
This huge flaw of investigations, mistaken identities, is an extremely serious issue that needs to be considered in all criminal cases, but may not be the only cause of the wrongful conviction, at least in Cornelius Dupree’s case. The two defendants were black males, while the two victims of the crime were two Caucasians. This cross-race misidentification not only implies inherent bias within humans and ties in with subconscious racist thoughts or beliefs, but also further weakens any eyewitness testimony in situations where the race of the defendant differs from the race of the witness.
Besides misidentification and cross race identification, another factor that lead to the wrongful conviction of Cornelius Dupree was the authorities’ mindset throughout the case, which seemed to have been “convict at all costs,” according to former Texas District Attorney Craig Watkins. This ignorant thought process carries many implications, including possible racial and class discrimination, bias toward anyone who’s been convicted, and even just regular confirmation bias, where authorities are trying to prove that they could not be wrong and seek out or interpret evidence to support their view on the case, even when it is seriously flawed.
While the Dupree case is rife with multiple thoughts and processes that led to a wrongful conviction, the single most influential cause was the misidentification of Cornelius Dupree as the perpetrator of the crime. Even though eyewitness testimony is regarded as highly persuasive for a judge and a jury, it has been proven repeatedly that not only are eyewitness identifications never one hundred percent correct, but that it is actually often quite unreliable in correctly assigning guilt to a party.
Out of the 21 exonerated prisoners from Texas since 2007, only 1 man was wrongfully convicted without a misidentification (New York Times). Nationally, misidentifications played the largest role in 86% of the first sixty DNA exonerations in the United States (Scheck et. al. , 2000) and over two-thirds of the wrongful convictions among the next 168 DNA exoneration cases (McMurtrie, 1275). The first reason this rings true is that the mind is not a video camera with a hard drive, there is no permanent store of information in memory on tapes or DVDs.
Eyewitness memories need to be thought about collectively and calmly, as numerous factors can and will influence what gets remembered. The brain itself is very complex, and during a crime scene situation, it is processing numerous thoughts and ideas all at once, at high speeds due to a certain adrenaline rush or shock toward the situation unfolding. Due to the complexity of the brain, this multitasking can sometimes outweigh the need to process and store information during an intense situation.
Researchers have found there to be two sets of variables that affect the brains ability to correctly recall a scene: estimator variables, which occur during a crime’s occurrence outside of the person’s control; and system variables, which can be controlled by people. An excellent example of an estimator variable is the appearance and presence of a knife or gun during a crime, resulting in the “weapon focus effect. ” This effect states that: “If a weapon is present when a crime is committed, we may devote more attention to the weapon than to the facial features or other physical aspects of the person who has the weapon,”(Hasel, 2011).
This effect is then further magnified when the use of such a weapon would be considered unexpected, or if the witness has never seen a weapon before. With all of the stress and adrenaline that is rushing through a witness’ body, the ability to confidently remember all, or even parts, of a crime scene drops significantly. Other estimator variables include stress levels, and age and gender of the witness. While the gender of a witness does not seem to affect memories as much as age does, women tend to be more eager to choose from a lineup than men.
Similarly, older eyewitnesses and especially younger children are more prone to choose anyone, even if the perpetrator is not in the lineup, just to feel a sense of being helpful toward the case. System variables include the manner in which lineups are presented to witnesses, instructions given to witnesses during lineups, and the Relative Judgment Process; where no matter what, there will be one person in a lineup who looks more like the culprit, relative to the other people in the lineup. (Hasel, 2011; Wells, 1984).
Dating back to the 1980’s, extensive research has revealed that expert testimony on memory and eyewitness identification has been the only effective disclaimer of sorts, that informs juries on mistakes in eyewitness accounts (Penrod et. al, 1999). Another strong factor involved in wrongful convictions is the cross-race effect of identification, which also can be associated with racial biases. The human brain is conditioned to recognize and memorize features better on the faces of those with whom one can identify and associate with- i. . , the same race. The cross-race effect is indeed an estimator variable, which has an effect on memory formation, thus creating a spotty recollection, one which produces a minimum 1. 56 times greater chance of mistakes during an identification, as compared to same-race identifications (Hasel, 2011). This cross-race effect just adds support to the fact that while we consider it “self-evident, that all men are created equal,” racial biases still exist whether people admit it or not.
It is quite evident that minorities such as African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are extremely more commonplace in all aspects of the criminal justice system, and this ubiquity can be seen with extra policing, higher court presence, and tougher sentencing. In the Supreme Court case of McKlesky v Kemp (1987), the Justices themselves offered a majority opinion stating, “this Court has recognized, any mode for determining guilt or punishment ‘has its weaknesses and the potential for misuse. ” Essentially, the Supreme Court was saying that while the laws and consequences of breaking said laws are designed to be fair, there remains an underlying understanding that discrimination can and will take place, be it towards class, race, or even gender. As previously stated, the human brain gets conditioned over time with ideas and beliefs, which will manifest themselves in a person’s thoughts, words, or actions when a relevant situation awakens these implicit biases.
An example here is the mental association of urban African American teens with criminal activity, and the stereotypes that involve that race and class. As this idea is planted into the mind like a seed, it grows into full fledged belief, until the situation arises where given the opportunity to judge an urban black kid, the typical Caucasian would be more prone to return a verdict of “guilty,” based more on the kid’s physical appearance and perceived makeup than on his words or actions.
These biases that lurk within the subconscious may be consciously condemned, but they continue to reside on the edge of all of our thoughts and decisions, and no matter how much we want to deny it, they influence our actions more often then we realize. Now that we understand the problem caused by misidentifications and racial biases that inevitably led to Cornelius Dupree’s wrongful conviction for aggravated robbery, and the subsequent 30 years he spent incarcerated in a state penitentiary, we can look for ways to improve the investigative rocess to ensure that history does not repeat itself by sentencing another undeserving, innocent man to a life-long stay in prison. Some of the clearest and most obvious ways to cut back on mistaken identifications are really quite simple: establish set rules and procedures for witness interrogation and lineup identifications. In Texas, this is exactly what they are doing with the proposed SB 121, which was drafted by Senator Ellis, and HB 215, drawn up by Representative Gallego.
These bills would force every authoritative organization to comply with set procedures for identification processes, lineups, or photo viewings, similar to those used in Dupree’s case. As of February 2011, 88% of law enforcement agencies had absolutely zero standards or rules for photo lineups or witness identification programs (KXAN Austin News). Implementing these bills would not only set a standard of procedures for all agencies to follow, but also make it easier for witnesses to understand the process of what they’re about to partake in and lead to better and more accurate identifications.
Furthermore, I believe further efforts can be made with regards to briefing the jurors, in order to ensure that they understand the potential flaws with eyewitness identifications and personal accounts. The jurors should be made aware of the different estimator and system variables that easily affect and influence a witness’ memory, so that they can understand to take everything a witness may say “with a grain of salt,” per se.
At the very least, they deserve to know about the cross-race effect, and the research that has been compiled by psychologists over the past 15 years, which clearly shows much higher rates of error in identifications and facial recognition among cross-race persons. Despite the knowledge of this crucial information that helps us to understand how reliable or unreliable an eyewitness identification can be, most judges have refused to allow defense counsels to alert the jurors to these findings (Johnson, 936. 1984).
Currently, this rests on the shoulders of the judges, but a regulation or rule stating that the judges must allow the juries to be told about these effects. Along those same lines, the idea of having professionals come in to give expert testimony on memory and eyewitness testimony would be a huge benefit, as that definitely would have left more reasonable doubt in the minds of the juror’s who wrongfully convicted Cornelius Dupree. However, the plausibility of having an expert on memory and eyewitness statements at every single rial when needed is not very high. Thus, it would be reasonable to request a video be made by one or more of these experts, to brief potential jurors before the case gets heard, or even after they hear it but before deliberation. As it can be seen, wrongful convictions are not a rare occurrence. People used to blindly follow the system, and no one had thought of the possibility of mistakes or errors that would send innocent people to incarceration, or even worse, capital punishment.
However, within the past 30 years, the emergence of DNA testing has enabled authorities and investigators to hone in on the truth, and not have to rely on determining if a defendant is telling the truth or simply lying to save himself from punishment. Cornelius Dupree Jr. may have been the most recent wrongfully convicted man to become exonerated from his “crimes,” but he most certainly will not be the last. It is estimated that in Texas alone, 2000-3000 people remain incarcerated in jails and prison, as they were wrongfully convicted for a crime they did not commit.
If professionals within the field and legislators for each state do not move into action soon, things will only continue to get worse for these innocent people, who do not deserve to wind up where they are: in jail.
Johnson, Sheri Lynn. “Cross-Racial Identification Errors in Criminal Cases. ” 69 Cornell Law Review. (1983): pg. 936-940 Taslitz, Andrew E. “Wrongly Accused: Is Race a Factor in Convicting the Innocent. ” 4 Ohio St. Journal of Criminal Law (2007): pg. 121 McMurtrie, Jacqueline. The Role of the Social Sciences in Preventing Wrongful Convictions” 42 American Criminal Law Review. (2005): pgs. 1271-1287. Carpenter, Siri. “Buried Prejudice: The Bigot in Your Brain. ” Scientific American Mind – (May 1, 2008): pg. 3 “A Joy to Be Free. ” Editorial. New York Times. January 16, 2011. <http://www. nytimes. com/2011/01/17/opinion/17mon3. html? _r=1&emc=eta1> “DNA clears 2 men in 1979 Dallas robbery, rape. ” Jennifer Emily, Dallas Morning News. January 2011. <http://www. dallasnews. com/news/crime/headlines/20110104-dna-clears-2-men-in-1979-dallas-robbery-rape. ece>