Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Review: False Justice

Jim Petro is a rock-ribbed Republican who is a former Attorney General of Ohio. He is the most unlikely person to get involved in the innocence movement -- but involved he is. In his book False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent, Mr. Petro takes us on a journey that shows how innocent folks find themselves in prison and the struggle to exonerate them.

The eight myths to which Mr. Petro refers are:
  1. Everyone in prison claims innocence
  2. Our system almost never convicts an innocent person
  3. Only guilty people confess
  4. Wrongful convictions are the result of innocent human error
  5. An eyewitness is the best evidence
  6. Conviction errors get corrected on appeal
  7. It dishonors the victim to question a conviction
  8. If the justice system has problems, the pros will fix them
Mr. Petro spends a good deal of ink discussing the problems with eyewitness testimony. He points out that 25% of rape suspects are cleared when their DNA is tested against crime scene DNA prior to being indicted. He notes that 30% of witnesses choose one of the "fillers" in lineups.

In Manson v. Braithwaite, the US Supreme Court held that even if eyewitness identification process is unduly suggestive, the testimony will be heard if it meets a five point "reliability" test. Those five points are:
  1. The witness' opportunity to view the suspect at the time of the alleged crime,
  2. The witness' degree of attention,
  3. The accuracy of the witness' prior description of the suspect,
  4. The witness' level of certainty at the time of identification, and
  5. The time between the alleged crime and the identification.
Ironically enough, research has indicated that the level of the witness' certainty at the time of the identification bears no relationship to the accuracy of the identification.

Another myth that deserves being addressed is this notion that somehow questioning the legitimacy of a conviction dishonors the victims of the crime. As Mr. Petro points out, if the person convicted of the crime is, indeed, innocent, that means the real perpetrator is still on the loose. A false conviction means that an innocent man suffers, a criminal walks free and other people may have been victimized.

Of course, because the book is also an autobiography, we are subjected to Mr. Petro's political exploits in stunning detail. But, I suppose, anytime the theme of your discourse is taking the other fork in the road, you have to set yourself for the great conversion. Just read the first half of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and you'll see what I mean. It is, however, just a minor quibble, because, no matter how Mr. Petro arrived at that fork in the road, he clearly took the right path.

As a postscript to the book, in December 2010, Dean Gillispie was once again denied a new trial.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Thank you, Paul Kennedy, for reading our book and for your thoughtful review. We appreciate the added awareness you have provided False Justice, wrongful criminal conviction, and reforms (best practices) that can improve accuracy and fairness in the criminal justice system.

Best wishes,

Jim and Nancy Petro