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Synopsis

Compelling and engagingly written, this book by former Attorney General of Ohio Jim Petro and his wife, writer Nancy Petro, takes the reader inside actual cases, summarizes extensive research on the causes and consequences of wrongful conviction, and exposes eight common myths that inspire false confidence in the justice system and undermine reform. Now newly published in paperback with an extensive list of web links to wrongful conviction sources internationally, False Justice is ideal for use in a wide array of criminal justice and criminology courses. 

Myth 1: Everyone in prison claims innocence. In fact, guilt is usually clear and undisputed either because the criminal was caught in the act, left substantial evidence, or made the decision to take a plea. While taking a plea does not assure guilt, often a combination of the above reveals the soundness of the defendant’s decision to plead rather than go to trial. Lauren McGarity, a mediator, conflict resolution expert, and educator who has worked with hundreds of Ohio inmates for ten years, dispelled this myth for us in False Justice.

Myth 2: Our system almost never convicts an innocent person. We mined and share the research and opinion of both conservatives and liberals, and we have concluded that the 311 persons exonerated of serious felonies to date, December 12, 2013, by DNA technology (which was first employed in criminal forensics in the U.S. in the late 1980s) must be the tip of the iceberg, a phrase commonly mentioned in our research. Following the Elkins experience, Nancy and I suspected a substantial number of innocent people in our prisons, but our research required that we frequently revise our thinking upward. Estimates have ranged from, conservatively, about one thousand to as many as tens of thousands of innocent people in American prisons today. We believe — and research and logic suggest — that our system convicts innocent persons far more frequently than most imagine and that most Americans, if more fully informed, would consider this a national travesty.

Myth 3: Only the guilty confess. Stephen Boorn confessed to a murder in Manchester, Vermont, even though there was no trace of evidence, including a body. Boorn is not alone. False Justice explores what prompted Christopher Ochoa and others falsely accused of murder to incriminate themselves. We explore why the Miranda warning failed in these cases to provide intended protections.

Myth 4: Wrongful conviction is the result of innocent human error. As chief legal officer of Ohio, I supervised a staff of 1,250, including 350 lawyers, who managed more than 35,000 active legal cases at a time. Yet I was totally unaware of the extent of wrongful criminal conviction, and was disappointed to learn that misconduct by police and prosecutors has contributed to many wrong verdicts. In the first edition of False Justice we noted that official misconduct was identified early as a contributor in DNA-proven wrongful convictions. Prosecutorial misconduct was a factor in thirty-three of the first seventy-four DNA exonerations (44.6 percent) and police misconduct was present in thirty-seven, or exactly half of those cases.3 Subsequent exonerations have supported the finding that official misconduct is a significant contributor to wrongful conviction. The National Registry of Exonerations reports at this writing (Dec. 14, 2013) 564 known cases of official misconduct—both police and prosecutor and in some cases both—in its universe of 1,262 exonerations, or in 44.6 percent of known exonerations since 1989.4 This book challenges thinking on what tactics should and should not be dismissed as "human error."

Myth 5: An eyewitness is the best testimony. Mistaken eyewitness testimony, a contributor in 75 percent of wrongful convictions, was the prevailing contributor to wrongful conviction in the cases of Elkins, Green, Gillispie, and others included in the book. False Justice shares highlights of what we now know about memory and how this has shaped legislative and procedural reforms that will enable more accurate capture of eyewitness testimony.

Myth 6: Conviction errors get corrected on appeal. The long, difficult, and expensive struggle to reverse a conviction is demonstrated in the Boorn, Elkins, Green, and Gillispie cases. Our appeals process addresses only certain errors that may have occurred in preparation of the case or in the courtroom. Post-conviction relief is difficult to attain in a system that properly seeks finality in the criminal process. The other route to correcting a conviction error is through new evidence, which, as indicated in Elkins and Gillispie, must meet specific requirements that are very difficult to achieve.

Myth 7: It dishonors the victim to question a conviction. False Justice reveals that, contrary to a popular opinion, only a minority of convicted persons claim innocence and represent cases that are worthy of post-conviction DNA analysis. Prosecutors who oppose access to post-conviction DNA evidence, which could conclusively prove guilt or innocence, frequently claim that this would dishonor the victim. Public safety requires that we abandon this myth, or understand that by allowing the real perpetrators to escape justice, we contribute to an increase in crime and victims. How does that honor victims?

Myth 8: If the justice system has problems, the pros will fix them. While most men and women who work in the criminal justice system are well meaning, committed, and deserving of our respect, they typically do not have the authority, resources, perspective, time, or inclination to change the system. False Justice recommends reforms achieved through legislation, policy, and court opinion. However, these will not occur with any urgency until conventional wisdom catches up with the truths revealed in this DNA age. Therefore, it will take us — everyday American citizens — not the pros, to accelerate this process. By abandoning myths and advocating reforms, we will not only reduce the destruction that comes with wrongful conviction but will also make the United States safer.

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