Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What could have prevented this false conviction?

The Houston Chronicle reported this week that a man named Charles Mumphrey confessed to a rape for which his brother Arthur had already done 18 years in prison ("Official: Cleared man's brother admits guilt," Jan. 23). DNA evidence confirmed Arthur didn't do it. Charles actually told police the truth at the time, but they disbelieved him and went after his brother instead. This is another instance, as with Ruben Cantu, where the police decided up front who they wanted to blame for the crime, then didn't look to other suspects, this time even when he confessed. Reported the Chronicle:
According to court records, Charles Mumphrey told police he committed the crime but later changed his story after police told him he could serve time in jail for perjury. Police told him he didn't know enough about the crime and that he was trying to protect Arthur, court records said. ...

During a prison interview Friday with the Associated Press, Arthur Mumphrey said police manipulated [co-defendant-turned-snitch Steve] Thomas and the victim into blaming him for the crime.
Police pressuring victims and informants to identify the wrong suspect is emerging as a key source of wrongful convictions in Texas. Where's the substance behind all the "victim's rights" rhetoric I keep hearing, I wonder? What good did it do the rights of the 13-year old victim in this case when they ignored the real rapist who confessed to focus on their preferred suspect? She must feel just terrible. In the Ruben Cantu case, too, the victim was pressured to blame someone who wasn't culpable, even after he'd twice said Cantu didn't do it.

The best way to keep more innocent people from being convicted is to figure out how it happened before, then restructure the rules to prevent similarly flawed evidence from producing more false convictions. Faulty witness testimony ranks at the top of the list of reasons for wrongful convictions.

I've argued before that eyewitnesses should be corroborated when they didn't previously know the defendant in a criminal case, as should jailhouse informants. Even that reform wouldn't have helped here, though, because the mendacious snitch would have been corroborated by the victim's testimony. She was just pressured into naming the wrong man.

Perhaps it would have helped if police followed best practices disallowing officers doing the investigation from participating in the lineups. Lineups work best when officers conducting the procedure don't know which person is a suspect.

In any event, this case strikes another blow against the presumed credibility in court of victims' eyewitness testimony. However emotional and compelling to a jury, at the end of the day too many get it wrong.

More at CrimProf blog. The prosecutor says he "feels terrible." That and $2 will get you coffee at the Starbucks, if you don't order one of those fancy ones.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem in this case was the detectives' failure to keep their minds open. If police decide what they think happened or who they think did the crime at the beginning of the investigation, everything gets screwed up--witnesses comments are distorted, clues are missed, people are pressured to change their stories.

Sometimes when I talk to juries, I ask them to consider how similar a detective's job is to a reporter's. When a cop investigates a case, he or she is supposesd to a) investigate the facts, and b) report those facts to the prosecutor and, ultimately, to the jury. Journalists (the ones I know, anyway) pride themselves on objectivity and openmindedness. Can you imagine an investigative reporter who starts an investigation from the stance: "Well, I've already formed an opinion about what happened here--in fact, I've figured everything out already, but I'll go ahead and talk to people and investigate to make sure that I'm right."

This method wouldn't exactly lead to unbiased reporting, would it? And it doesn't work for cops either.

How do you get cops to do their jobs in an unbiased, thorough fashion? I'm not sure. A cultural shift that values justice over vengeance may be the only answer. In the meanwhile, make sure you have a good lawyer.