EXONERATIONS: Part XI – FINAL: Discussion and Conclusions

(This is the 11th and final report in an 11-part series by The Vanguard reporting on a study of exonerations produced by Samuel R. Gross, Maurice J. Possley, Kaitlyn J. Roll, and Klara H. Stephens)

By Kelsea Valerio

Research by Samuel R. Gross, Maurice J. Possley, Kaitlyn J. Roll, and Klara H. Stephens concluded that there are several contributing factors the commission of misconduct by law enforcement officials that leads to wrongful convictions.

From their investigations, it has been found that these wrongdoings stem from practices that permit misconduct, lack of training resources and poor leadership.

In order to address the atrocities committed by law enforcement officials, these crucial issues must be confronted, suggested Gross et. al., citing many examples in order to delve into the motivation behind misconduct.

In the 1987 case of Ken Anderson, District Attorney of Williamson County, Texas, he falsely prosecuted Michael Morton for the murder against his wife. Anderson went through great lengths to hide exculpatory evidence, the most noticeable of which was refusing to test a bandana that was found at the crime scene which contained the DNA of the real killer.

Morton was wrongly imprisoned for 24 years and the real criminal killed another woman the very next year. Anderson was disbarred and resigned as judge. The authors of this report believe that the most likely reason for Anderson’s malicious actions was that it was routine practice for him. There is no way of knowing how many smaller offenses went undetected.

A possible solution suggested to curb such misconduct would be to enforce specific rules regarding obtaining and preserving evidence in a criminal trial. All proposed reforms would only make a difference if law enforcement officials took them seriously.

In the 2011 case of John Burge, the Chicago Police Commander faced four and a half years in prison for committing perjury related to inflicting torture on innocent suspects to obtain false confessions. Burge’s appalling actions include electrocuting victims to get them to confess to crimes they did not commit.

There are 19 cases in the National Registry of Exoneration alone where Burge and his fellow officers tortured primarily Black individuals into producing false confessions.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned the City of Chicago for the inequitable treatment of Burge’s victims and the City Council then gave $100,00, free city college tuition, job training, and psychological treatment to victims and their relatives. Chicago schools were also required to include the history of police brutality in the high school curriculum.

By 2018, the total amount paid in settlements and legal fees by the city topped $132 million.

Forensic chemist Joyce Gilchrist was found to have produced false testimonies from 1986 to 1995. In one instance, she maintained that hair samples were “microscopically consistent” with those found at the crime scene, which was misleading and false, because there is no scientific data on microscopic characteristics of human hair.

In a 2001 FBI re-examination determined that no such microscopic characteristics were possible. Furthermore, she concealed blood and semen test results in multiple different cases which would have exonerated the defendant.

One explanation proposed for her actions is that she enjoyed accepting praise and recognition for her ability to produce swift convictions. She received honorary citations from the police, a commendation from the district attorney, early promotions and even Civilian Police Employee of the Year.

After the FBI investigation into her misconduct, Gilchrist was fired.

Other reforms to curb misconduct include recording different processes such as identification involving lineups and interrogations. Recording of interrogations is now required by 26 states and in all agencies of the United States Department of Justice.

Illinois passed a law requiring recorded interrogations in murder cases as a direct result of John Burge’s actions. Currently, there is no rule that all police conversations with civilians are to be recorded, but if this were enforced, it would greatly reduce and prevent witness tampering.

Having independent crime labs run by forensic scientists instead of police officers would be another way to eliminate misconduct.

Testing evidence by independent scientists would reduce pressure to lie in order to convict a defendant. A forensic analyst should be praised for the  accuracy of their tests rather than providing evidence that points to conviction.

The authors acknowledged that these types of regulations would take time, money and training to properly implement.

And, while there is no one overarching rule to fix misconduct within the criminal system, it takes small changes that address systemic corruption to slowly bring about justice.

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About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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