How wrongful convictions happen
Linda Starr is the Legal Director of the Northern California Innocence Project. She spoke with KALW’s Rina Palta about the criminal justice system and what happens when it sends the wrong person to prison.
RINA PALTA: So, just to start out, tell me a little bit about the Innocence Project and how it started.
LINDA STARR: Well, we started in 2001 in response to word that there was going to be legislation passed that was going to permit post-conviction DNA testing. And we got involved in helping craft that legislation and then realized that there needed to be something in place to help inmates access that kind of post-conviction DNA testing. So we started as a law school clinical program here at Santa Clara University that year, 2001.
PALTA: So what are the most common issues you see in these cases? Is it usually an eyewitness who was wrong about who they saw? Or is it s procedural thing, where prosecutors disregarded evidence? What are the most common reasons you find for wrongful convictions?
STARR: Often we see a combination of factors. So we’ll see something like a witness gets it wrong. One of the reasons they get it wrong is that the police maybe fudged a line at procedure, or subtly – and maybe even accidentally – influenced how the identification was made. And then prosecutors fail to turn over some of that evidence that would have demonstrated how that eyewitness identification wasn’t done properly.
PALTA: So why does that happen? Why do police fudge line-ups or why do prosecutors put things, little inconsistencies, out of their minds? Is it just a case of being overworked, or is it, you know, this person’s been convicted of other stuff and “I’m sure we’re getting them for something that they could have done”? How does this happen?
STARR: Well, I think for police sometimes there is that, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and “If they didn’t do this, they did something else, so let’s just get ’em” kind of mentality. But I’m going to give them a little more credit than that in some cases. I think that, many times, they think they have the right person. And they’re afraid of losing the right person, unless they somehow kind of support the identification in some way. And I think overwhelmingly there is this tendency – it’s a human tendency, it’s not just law enforcement that has it – but the human tendency of tunnel vision. They have a version of the story that makes sense to them, that demonstrates something to them, and they just fail to recognize the importance of something that’s inconsistent with that version.
PALTA: So one of the strangest phenomena in wrongful convictions to me is the false confession – people confessing to something that they haven’t done. And I was wondering if you had any insight into why that ever happens.
STARR: That is a really interesting one, and for many of us that have been involved in the criminal justice system, that was one of the hardest ones to sort of wrap our heads around. Why would somebody admit to having done something so terrible if they hadn’t done it? And there has been a fair amount of sociological research on that. And it turns out that some of what have been considered false confessions never really were confessions to begin with: they were suppositions. Say, for example, somebody has been arrested. And they are believed to have been the perpetrators of some horrible homicide. And they said, “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.” And then they are asked, “Do you ever drink?” “Well, yes, I drink.” “Do you ever drink to blackout?” “Yes, I have. I’ve had blackouts before.” “So isn’t it possible that you blacked out and committed this?” “Well, I guess it’s possible I did that.” Then that becomes a confession.
PALTA: So let’s talk about Maurice Caldwell specifically and his case. You guys helped him prove that he had a mistrial and he eventually did get out of prison. Has he been able to get any financial compensation for the time he spent there?
STARR: He has not yet sought any financial compensation, but I do believe he’s entitled to some. In order to be entitled to some under the statutory scheme, he’s going to have to be able to demonstrate that he’s factually innocent.
PALTA: So you say that you’ve identified the actual perpetrators of this murder that Maurice was at first convicted for. Has there been any effort on the part of law enforcement or the D.A.’s office in San Francisco to pursue who you say are the true murderers?
STARR: Not that I know of. And that has been actually an astonishing fact for me. We have one of the actual participants – who actually confessed to having done it – described in great detail how he participated. He actually drew a diagram of the scene, and who stood where, which exactly matched the surviving victim’s description of the incident. And, interestingly enough, did not correspond with the supposed eyewitness’ identification and description of the incident. We gave all contact information and any information we had about any of these participants to law enforcement. As far as we know, not a single effort has been made to apprehend the actual perpetrators of that homicide. Including an admitted confession from a perpetrator, who after having been named as a perpetrator in this offense – law enforcement made no effort to apprehend him – he went ahead and killed another person. He is currently incarcerated in Nevada for having shot and killed a taxi driver there. I don’t understand law enforcement’s abdication of their responsibility here.
Audio for this interview available after 5pm PST on February 13, 2012.