Dan Simon stated, “The criminal process is good as the evidence on which it feeds” (Simon, 2012, 17). The criminal justice system’s effectiveness rests on its capability to produce real true evidence, honest testimony and just conviction.
1. Investigation Dynamics
Crime investigation, along with an awareness of functional, methodological dimensions, is a blend of natural perceptiveness, intuitiveness, knowledge, mental capacity, judgement, and reasonableness. Mainly for crime prevention, police investigations are carried out. When illegal activities occur, law enforcement is in charge of the people it serves and should perform its obligation by promptly investigating these crimes. If necessary, to justify his / her behaviour, the research would persuade or enable the suspect to attend a court hearing (Simon, 2012). Finally, and perhaps most critically, the detention, conviction, and investigation of the offender effectively acts to inhibit or re-offend recurrence, thus reducing the overall rate of crime (Osterburg & Ward, 2013).
The knowledge collection and analysing process is involved in any investigation, regardless of intent. Instead of collecting data, the complexities of study must be seen in terms of information collection. This does not suggest, however, that investigators can ignore visible, apparent proof artefacts or artefacts that can become a critical piece of evidence (Osterburg & Ward, 2013). The investigation must be carried out with the attitude that it is possible to extract facts from knowledge. Via screening, review, and examination, the information gathered passes via meticulous, diligent inspection before being presented in court (Orthmann & Hess, 2012).
Due to evidence laws, much of the evidence obtained by police is not permissible for demonstration in court. Nevertheless, this does not preclude the investigator from directing these bits of information in such a way as to guide him / her to admissible evidence; each piece of information has a certain degree of relevance (Orthmann & Hess, 2012). In essence, the investigator of criminal justice considers and causes the human aspect, all the sociological, environmental, psychological and emotional characteristics of human activity. On the other hand, the significance and level of information obtained from examined physical items depends primarily on the capacity of the investigator to recognise potential pieces of evidence at a specific scene (Simon, 2012).
It must be stressed that when evaluating the importance of information gained from physical objects against data obtained from individuals, the courts have traditionally declared that information derived from physical objects often reveals a greater evidentiary worth. The investigator must continuously remind that material evidence cannot mislead or keep the truth, for feelings or emotions do not influence it and cannot be indicted (Osterburg & Ward, 2013). The likelihoods or odds are infinite and can be as plain as only, unconsciously, passing through, or coming into contact with a crime scene. It is obligatory upon the investigator to always identify, cultivate, and protect existing useful information sources.
The investigator should recognize possible sources of information required to carry out his/her investigation effectively. An investigator is continuously challenged, tried, and assessed by his capacity to acquire knowledge from individuals—witnesses, victims, offenders, and so on. This is important because wrongful convictions may occur due to incompetent and improper investigative dynamics. In instances where a mistake has been identified, it is becoming more and more precise that mistaken identification is the primary reason for wrongful convictions (Simon, 2012). Other widespread causes of erroneous beliefs are police and prosecutorial misbehavior and the tampering of evidence. Numerous instances of false confidence are the outcome of multiple aspects. Yet, existing studies suggest that enhancing the precision of the offender’s identification is the most valuable progress the criminal justice system could achieve to tackle erroneous convictions’ general dilemma (Osterburg & Ward, 2013).
In most erroneous identification cases, the errors are real; namely, it is rare to locate a point wherein a witness has intentionally pinpointed an innocent individual as the offender. Hence, witness misbehavior is mostly not a problem in such instances. Nevertheless, every error, whether truthful or not, weaken the reliability of the investigative procedure. Studies that have tackled what investigators can do to most successfully protect identification evidence propose immediate and straightforward steps (Simon, 2012). Primarily, investigators should obtain as complete and exhaustive a depiction of the offender as immediately as possible; this is rooted in knowing that the incident’s memory is most accurate directly and instantly after the incident (Orthmann & Hess, 2012).
Furthermore, every attempt should be initiated to ensure that law enforcement people keep their distance from the investigation. They could influence the capability of an eyewitness to give objective identification. The investigator should stay impartial or unbiased and responsive to various standpoints when carrying out an investigation (Simon, 2012). The investigator must be guided by the evidence to anywhere the evidence may point them and not try to appropriate given proof to the omission of others into a pre-established decision. The investigator should continually go beyond the observable and pursue the truth.
2. The Case of Michael Morton
Michael Morton was charged with murder in 1987, convicted of murdering his wife. On the 4th of October 2011, Michael released an innocent man from the Williamson County court in Texas after the charge of murder against him was reversed due to a DNA finding that says Michael did not murder his wife and that another person committed the crime (Siegel & Bartollas, 2015). It was discovered that a neckerchief collected at the crime scene of another murder had Christine Morton’s blood and another person, Mark Alan Norwood. Norwood was a notorious criminal who resided in the vicinity. Michael was imprisoned for more than two decades before being freed. Norwood was then charged with Christine’s murder in 2013 and was sentenced to life imprisonment (Siegel & Bartollas, 2015).
After Michael was released from prison, the co-director of the nonprofit organization Innocence Project, Barry Scheck, declared to the media that “Mr. Morton was the victim of extreme prosecutorial misconduct that forced him to lose 25 years of his life, tearing his family completely apart. Perhaps even more tragically, we now know that another murder might have been prevented if law enforcement had continued the investigation rather than building a false case against Mr. Morton” (Siegel & Bartollas, 2015, 220). The prosecuting attorney fabricated stories of domestic abuse once the case went to trial. Astonishingly, critical evidence collected at the scene of the crime was not submitted or reported to court (Davies, 2013).
Some of the pieces of evidence that were hidden from the defense are the following (Siegel & Bartollas, 2015, 220):
- A statement by the victim’s mother, who told police that the couple’s 3-year-old child witnessed the murder and provided a chilling account;
- A report that a neighbor had on several occasions observed a man park a green van on the street behind Morton’s house, then get out and walk into the wooded area off the road.
- A claim by a man named John B. Cross that a check was given to Christine Morton was cashed with Christine’s forged signature nine days after her murder.
Also, fingerprints found on the sliding door of Morton’s house were not disclosed. And crucially, the sole witness to the murder was Eric, the son of Michael and Christine. Even though he was very young during that time, 3-years-old to be exact, he described the crime to the investigators— a “big and angry monster” (Davies, 2013, 124) had entered their house and murdered his mother. He informed the investigators that his father was not in the place at that moment and precisely depicted the crime scene. This testimony from an eyewitness was not presented in court. With these essential pieces of evidence undisclosed, the jury and the judge had easily made a guilty decision and sentenced Michael to life imprisonment (Davies, 2013).
In response to the miscarriage of justice committed by the previous Williamson County District Judge and District Attorney, Ken Anderson, the Texan government recently ratified new legislation that has been referred to as the Michael Morton Act, which fully came into force on the 1st of January 2014 (Hankins, 2015). It demands the presentation of all gathered evidence such as witness testimony to defendants, irrespective of what the prosecuting attorney deems about their bearing to the defendant’s guilt or punishment. This attempt to expand the Supreme Court order in the Brady v. Maryland case is praiseworthy. Yet, it still depends on truthful prosecutors to be competent, and it does not offer alternative against untruthful prosecutors who discard or conceal exonerating evidence (Hankins, 2015).
The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure advocates the obligation of prosecutors: “It shall be the primary duty of all prosecuting attorneys, including any special prosecutors, not to convict, but to see that justice is done. They shall not suppress facts or secrete witnesses capable of establishing the innocence of the accused” (Hankins, 2015, para 4). Those are noble ambitions, but the real complexities of an opponent’s system generally overshadow them. The defendant, sometimes without adequate resources, is faced with the immense powers and authority of the government. The criminal justice system also calls for sincere contributors (Simon, 2012). Yet the dishonest acts of multiple prosecutors and the utter immunity from guilt with which they typically expose themselves do not expose the whole truth of the shortcomings of the criminal justice institution.
The criminal justice system’s daily activities depend significantly on court-assigned attorneys, but numerous of them fail to perform their tasks satisfactorily, are inadequately funded, and are provided inadequate resources to make preparations for trial (Davies, 2013; Simon, 2012). The Morton case also reveals that courts can commit an error, and innocent people are habitually convicted, incarcerated for a long period of time, or still incarcerated executed. If prisoners could not acquire legal representations or be deprived of the privilege to put their case to trial, individuals like Michael would not ever be able to enjoy their liberty and freedom.
III. Interrogating Suspects
Untruthful confessions are possibly the most challenging, difficult source of erroneous conviction, partly due to the interplay of defendants’ psychological functioning and the process through which confessions are acquired. There are numerous findings, especially about the psychological aspect of false confession, suggesting that people most predisposed to give a confession, even to an act they did not commit, are those who belong to a minority group, are underprivileged, and most particularly those with low intelligence or learning impairments (Osterburg & Ward, 2013). Nevertheless, more relevant to contemporary research is the correlation between the interrogation process and false confessions. The absence of legal principles concerning the acceptability of evidence gained using interrogation is widely known. This is somewhat due to the disjointed features of the interrogation process (Simon, 2012).
Quite rarely does a case involve only one interrogation, and it is even more unlikely that interrogations are the initial contact of law enforcement and suspect. More probably, interrogations are led by a sequence of interviews, which are evidential, or information-gathering periods of defendants and other involved entities (Orthmann & Hess, 2012). This procedure itself can establish the ground for investigators to be persuaded of a defendant’s guilt before entering into the interrogation process. Thus, according to Osterburg and Ward (2013), although instructions like recording or documenting interrogations is an encouraging measure toward answerability for obtaining misleading confessions, the liberty and low transparency of criminal investigators, particularly before any formal interrogations, complicate the process of identifying how illegal justice methods could have influenced what turns out as finally being a documented confession.
Almost all professional law enforcement agencies emphasize the application of interrogation methods, like the Reid system, as customary for carrying out unbiased interrogations and finding signs of a defendant’s innocence or guilt. Nevertheless, studies have reported that the possibility of people being capable of differentiating shame from innocence employing these methods is, generally, not more desirable than one could suppose by coincidence alone (Davies, 2013). Nonetheless, techniques like the Reid method are not merely flaunted for their ability to generate confessions but also recognized as practical, sensible protection against untruthful confessions (Lassiter, 2006). Hence police departments frequently see not much of a need for different techniques and rules concerning interrogation processes to be essential.
A thought-provoking part of the interrogation methods is exercising the threat of the death penalty in interrogation processes. Although certain findings show that this specific method is standard in capital punishment states, there is no evidence by which police are openly asked about such application of interrogation techniques (Lassiter, 2006). There is additional evidence, however, that this may be integral. A vast majority of the recorded cases of erroneous convictions involving false confession occurred in states of capital punishment (Davies, 2013). Although this number is not definitive, it does mean that further assessments of this technique are needed.
For all processes, the presence of rules, criteria, and observance of these guidelines have been critical for the professionalization of law enforcement agencies. It is also believed that they are also imperative to lessen the possibility of erroneous conviction. At the same time, they make investigative processaes and other criminal justice practices more accountable and transparent and make police officers officially answerable to a procedure of justice instead of merely the outcome of conviction (Orthmann & Hess, 2012). Philip Zimbardo, a widely recognized behavioral scientist, and social psychologist, informed the psychological society about the real-world and theoretical implications of policy-induced confessions. He explained (Lassiter, 2006, 4):
How will the court devise standards without regard to psychology to evaluate ‘psychological coercion, “voluntariness of a confession,” capacity to withstand pressure’ and related concepts? Central in the definition of these concepts is knowledge of personality, behavior deviations, performance under stress and deprivation, the effect of social demand characteristics, research on erasability and attitude change, and many other areas of psychology.
Daryl Bem (1966), another prominent social psychologist, publicized a paper explaining how even indirect, apparently non-forcible control or manipulation within the interrogation setting can result in bias, misrepresentations, and distortions in a person’s capability to effectively distinguish what is real or authentic from what is fake or untrue.
IV. The Case of Central Park Five
A young woman taking her regular nighttime jog in Central Park was sexually violated, brutally mugged, and left barely alive in an assault by approximately twelve teenagers, who wandered the park in a violent riot. Trisha Meili, a 30-year-old investment banker, almost died due to skull ruptures (Byfield, 2014). Five teenagers were captured about another assault Wednesday night, and investigators stated that they were listed as suspects in the young woman’s attack. All the five suspects pleaded not guilty and revealed that the police fabricated their recorded confessions. Kharey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, and Antron McCray were imprisoned for 5 to 13 years. Kharey Wise was freed several months after the sole DNA gathered at the crime scene, which was not once linked to any of the suspects, was tied to another person (New York Times, 2012). The verdicts appeared to have been terminated by lawyers for the five defendants, arguing that new evidence-the DNA and confession of another suspect-had arisen that may have altered the first judgments dramatically. For several months, the district attorney (DA) has been reexamining the Central Park case (Burns, 2012).
The Central Park Five case is the most exciting and contentious, because it touches on the popular belief in criminal prosecutions. The public will not be told by the media and the criminal justice system that untruthful admissions are disturbingly common. A quarter of innocent suspects who were acquitted of DNA findings gave convicting testimony or self-incriminating confessions, as stated by the Innocence Project (Burns, 2012). An uneven number of individuals who dishonestly admit they have psychiatric disabilities or are mentally disabled; in police interrogation, children and adolescents often typically refuse to recognise or exercise their rights. Law enforcers try to catch the offender, but they often arrest the people they consider to be the most possible and fit the evidence into it (Davies, 2013). Before even interrogating the suspect, they have already established the guilt of the suspect. The interrogation aims not to determine or find the truth—it is to harden or reinforce accountability (Simon, 2012).
The five defendants immediately retracted their confessions once they were officially captured. They were children who were deprived of sleep for a few days and interrogated without legal representation in attendance; they were informed that if they give their confession, they will be freed (Byfield, 2014). The testimonies they showed in their admissions were conflicting with and contrary to the physical evidence. Some of the suspects stated they stabbed the victim, yet the investigators found no stab injuries. Their accounts differed on the scene and timeline of the crime, and the victim’s depiction. There was very little physical evidence linking them to mugging and sexual violence (New York Times, 2012). They were put on trial and sentenced nevertheless.
Meanwhile, Matias Reyes, the person who truly perpetrated the crime and almost killed the victim, carried on his binge of serial rapes all over the city of New York. While imprisoned for murder and rape, Reyes confessed to the Central Park crime in 2002 (New York Times, 2012). DNA findings linked him to the felony. Significantly, even when a judge cleared out the verdicts of the Central Park Five, Ray Kelly, the police administrator, supported the investigation outcomes that threw five innocent teenagers into prison: “The judge’s ruling has neither exonerated the defendants nor found any collusion or coercion on the part of the police” (New York Times, 2012, 95). Law enforcement officers are human beings and sometimes commit errors; that is understandable. But it is not defensible to refuse to change corrupt practices and to put one’s motives and biases in convicting a suspect even before formal investigation processes.
Law enforcement agencies all over the nation keep on opposing thoroughly documented interrogations and policies against forcible interrogation techniques. In New York, the videotaping of interrogations for major crimes like rape and murder is compulsory (Lassiter, 2006). More law enforcement agencies should follow and emulate this example. They must move beyond this by getting rid of intimidation, threat, dishonesty, and sleep deprivation, which frequently have unfavorable outcomes (Orthmann & Hess, 2012). When prosecutors and police officers do not take the evidence seriously, when they are more interested in making a conviction than capturing the real offender, the victims are defeated. A larger number of individuals fall into the hands of criminals.
- Bem, D.J. (1966). Inducing belief in false confessions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 707-710.
- Burns, S. (2012). The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes. New York: Vintage Books.
- Byfield, N. (2014). Savage Portrayals: Race, Media, and the Central Park Jogger Story. New York: Temple University Press.
- Davies, J. (2013). Wrongly Convicted: Miscarriages of Justice. New York: RW Press.
- Hankins, L. (2015). Criminal Justice and the Michael Morton case. Retrieved from http://texasfreethoughtjournal.net/article/criminal-justice-and-michael-morton-case.
- Lassiter, G.D. (2006). Interrogations, Confessions, and Entrapment. Athens, OH: Springer Science & Business Media.
- New York Times (2012). The Central Park Jogger Case. New York: VOOK.
- Orthmann, C. & Hess, K. (2012). Criminal Investigation Hardcover. Mason, OH: Delmar Cengage Learning.
- Osterburg, J. & Ward, R. (2013). Criminal Investigation: A Method for Reconstruction of the Past. London: Routledge.
- Siegel, L. & Bartollas, C. (2015). Corrections Today. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.
- Simon, D. (2012). In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process. New York: Harvard University Press.