Wrongful conviction is, both morally and practically, the worst mistake that society can inflict on an individual. From Franz Kafka to Errol Morris, from Arthur Koestler to Harper Lee, Western culture is deeply shaken at the prospect of the innocent person condemned. Outside of fiction, it used to be nearly impossible to prove a convict’s innocence to a level of certainty that could overturn the judgment of a jury: after all, twelve peers have found that it would be unreasonable even to doubt his guilt. In the absence of procedural error, society lacked any way to correct such a verdict. But in the late nineteen-eighties, with the advent of reliable DNA testing, that changed.
One wrongful conviction is a tragedy; a hundred thousand wrongful convictions is a statistic. In his new book Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong (Harvard UP, 2011), Brandon L. Garrett tries to bridge the gap between the two. Drawing on court records and archives at the Innocence Project, he presents an extensive analysis of two hundred and fifty erroneous convictions for extremely serious crimes. The data, unique in history, constitute a perfect ‘natural experiment’ for evaluating the weaknesses of the criminal-justice system. The stories Garrett brings to light are horrifying in their routine simplicity and in the absence of malice that led to such unjust results. Moreover, the exonerees’ faulty trials share many common elements, and the patterns of error Garrett has identified point the way toward crucial reforms.