Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Systems failure

This suggestion for a "Systems Approach to Error Reduction in Criminal Justice" to which Grits' new co-blogger Jennifer Laurin linked in her inaugural post reminds me of how the NYPD seeks to prevent terrorist attacks, using failures (thankfully, mainly in table top exercises) as a roadmap for crafting preventive measures. Terrorist attacks on US soil, happily, are even more rare than false convictions, by far. But taking a systems approach toward preventing unlikely but terrible outcomes makes loads of sense and is supported by the cases Texas' Exoneration Commission will review.

When dozens of drug defendants are exonerated for the same reason - they pled guilty rather than wait for months in jail for tests to come back from the crime lab - that's a systems problem, not just a problem in one individual's case.

IMO we should consider a false conviction to be as serious as a plane crash and confronting failures with a systems review, as they famously do with downed aircraft, conveys the gravity of the problem. Yes, the plane crash affects more people, at least on the surface. But for every false conviction identified and for which successful redress has been obtained, there are dozens if not hundreds of other innocent people convicted who can never be identified because there's no exculpatory DNA, Brady violation found, or other smoking gun to definitively prove their innocence.

Jennifer described that larger category thusly to me in a private email: "the real concern is that 90% of cases really aren't 'about' the evidence per se. (As the guilty pleas in the complete absence of corroborative evidence demonstrate.) They're about resources, leverage, negotiation, and enough evidence to get over the probable cause hurdle. And so that's where, as you say, bail reform meets innocence work, sentencing reform meets innocence work, etc."

That's exactly right, and it sums up the challenge faced by those who would extend innocence-related critiques and reforms beyond what Laurin called the "canonical," traditional issue areas like eyewitness ID and access to DNA testing.

Whether Texas' Exoneration Commission adopts such an approach remains to be seen, but it's arguably the best way to get to the root of these questions.


Anonymous said...

Under the link "Jennifer Laurin linked in her inaugural post", it takes you to:

"Exoneration Review Commission To-Do List Part 1: Broaden the Conversation" and if you scan down it shows:

Prioritize low-level cases in the review which has a link to: "dozens of plea exonerations" which takes you to

"Latest drug exoneration displays familiar pattern" in the Statesman which says:

"Like nine of those other Harris County defendants, Wilkins was charged with possessing a miniscule amount of a controlled substance -- .15 of a gram. (To understand what that looks like, consider that about a quarter of a teaspoon of sugar weighs one gram.) As with most of the other accused, Wilkins also agreed to a plea bargain very quickly -- on April 1, 2013, four days after his arrest, on his first court date.

Facing a maximum sentence of two years in prison, Wilkins was sentenced to 180 days in state jail."

The white substance was scatterred on the floor board of Wilkins car. If Wilkins was innocent, why did he plead guilty? I seriously doubt he thought that was powdered sugar off the donuts he had taken to the kiddies in Sunday school.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The answer would be to avoid 1.5 extra years' incarceration.

Jennifer Laurin said...


I have to fall on the sword for sloppy citation, and I appreciate being called out. But the point still holds. The link that I provided only substantiates about a dozen and a half exonerations. The National Registry of Exonerations report for 2014 documents 33 exonerations in Harris County drug cases in 2014. So that's two dozen. There are additional plea-based exonerations since 2010. For example if you sort the Registry's 2013 data you will find 7 erroneous pleas based on bad forensic evidence (more on other factors) in 2013. So that brings it to 40, about 3.5 dozen. I haven't added up the other years, but I think we've got an ample data set.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jennifer, to elaborate on your data, when IPOT examined the 113 Texas exonerations in the registry from 2010-July 2015, 67 were for drug offenses. A handful were from other jurisdictions, but most were these Harris County crime-lab exonerations, even more of which have come out since that count.

Anonymous said...

Did they ever discover the scientific reason behind the field testing false positives?