A Justice System of Injustice: Causes of Wrongful Convictions in The United States
The criminal justice system, when done right, is a system that delivers justice to people who commit crimes. It is a way of establishing and retaining order. On the contrary, wrongful convictions is the imprisonment of those that have not committed the given crime. From 1972 to 2016, prison populations in the United States had risen from 300,000 to 2.3 million-- holding 25% of the world’s prisoners despite the U.S being 5% of the world population(13th). This raises questions as to why so many people are imprisoned, many of which are answered in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, When They See Us. The film is based on a real story about five 14 to 16-year-old black and brown boys— Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. Famously known as the Central Park Five, they were wrongfully convicted of raping a white female, Patrisha Meili, who was jogging in Central Park on the night of April 19, 1989. DuVernay targets the causes of issues within the United States criminal justice system such as false confessions, eyewitness misidentification, police/prosecutorial misconduct, forensic evidence, inadequate defense counsel, and indigency. Throughout the film, one can analyze how the Central Park Five boys were forced to become men in the hands of an unlawful criminal justice system. The film’s portrayal of injustice highlighted the need for reform.
When They See Us’ opening scene takes the viewer back to New York in 1989-- giving an imagery of how the Central Park Five ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The boys were on their way to Central Park, along with roughly thirty other boys for what they thought would be a fun night. Upon arrival, a group of boys, excluding the Central Park Five, were beating up a bystander and committing various misdemeanors. The police soon arrived and took in as many boys as they could for unlawful assembly, reporting that they were “wilding.” Around the same time, although completely unrelated, Patricia Meili was severely beaten, raped, and left in critical condition. With the press wanting answers, the public uneasy and investigators wanting to close the case quickly, drastic measures were put in place. The film gets intense as DuVernay captures the pressure within the interrogation rooms as detectives coerced the minors into giving up a statement-- anything that could link them to the rape scene. A study conducted by Shapiro on the causes of wrongful convictions stated the following:
An individual may submit a false confession for a multitude of reasons such as:
[d]uress, coercion, intoxication, diminished capacity, mental impairment, a misunderstanding of the law, fear of violence by the police, actual harm by the police, the threat of a harsh sentence if a confession is not given, and a misunderstanding of the situation (904).
Most of the listed reasons above contributed to the false confessions discussed shortly. According to the Innocence Project, 29% of DNA exonerations involve false confessions and 69% involve eyewitness misidentification. False confessions can be hard to decipher in court, especially when the statements are signed by the defendant (person on trial). The nervousness of the defendant may be viewed as guilt to a jury and aid in the conviction. In cases where defendants gave false confessions and went to trial, there was higher chance of conviction despite all other evidence proving their innocence. Ultimately, the verdict lies upon whether or not the jury believes there’s guilt without reasonable doubt (Schapiro 905). In the interrogation rooms, detectives coerced false statements-- suggesting to the boys what each of the suspects were doing and correcting them when crime scene details weren’t matching up. The minors were beaten, yelled at, and questioned for nearly 28 hours without lawyers or guardians present. After rehearsing and recording their false confessions, they were coerced to sign the statements with the misguided promise that they could go home after. Also known as eyewitness identification error, Schapiro claims that people can choose who they think is the right suspect when officers are encouraging them-- making them confident in their answer (902). This is evident as the boys began identifying each other as witnesses to the crime without ever meeting each other. Officers even went as low as to threaten Antron’s father’s job if he did not “talk sense” into his son and get him to lie.
The false confessions presented by the Central Park Five were a result of police and prosecutorial misconduct. Investigators who practiced unethical interrogations and immoral doings should be regarded as criminals. Tens of thousands are wrongfully imprisoned yearly (Rogers 693), while the very same corrupt people that are supposed to deliver justice get to walk free. 48 minutes into the film, lead prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer notices some red flags in the case that Linda Fairstein, the assistant district attorney, presented to her. Elizabeth noted that the stories of the boys were aligned up until the actual rape of the victim, in which none of them confessed to the rape but rather accused each other. Linda then claimed that the “evidence” was still valuable because it makes the boys all look guilty considering they all mention one another as eyewitnesses. At this point, both Linda and Elizabeth notice the red flags but don’t do much to seek the truth. Elizabeth is focused on how presenting this case will look to a jury, while Linda is focused on closing the case and giving the public answers quickly. Jamala Rogers, who has worked with prisoners for over 45 years, argues that the common misconception regarding prosecutors is that they are just supposed to prosecute defenders. She claims that their job instead should be “truth seekers” (692). Citizens should be able to trust that both the people representing them and the opposing side should want nothing but the truth. Instead, it seems as though being right and winning the case was more important as noted in the Central Park Five case. Misconduct is seen throughout the film and not once did someone point out that this case was circumstantial and inconclusive: no murder weapon, no DNA, statements from the confessions weren’t making sense, and the boys clearly didn’t know each other (except Yusef and Korey) yet Linda was convinced they were guilty from the beginning.
The assumption of guilt is first seen in the term “wildin” that was written in the initial police report as mentioned by one of the teenagers. Wildin’ or wilding is a slang term used when doing something extreme or daring. Linda’s acknowledgement of this word led to her utilization of racial slurs-- calling the boys animals. She wasn’t the only one, however. News reporters labeled the boys as wolf packs and gangs, claiming that they came from a world of crack, violence, guns, ignorance and welfare. People of color (poc) have been portrayed as savages and animalistic behaviors for centuries so it is no secret they receive longer sentences for crimes in comparison to their white counterparts. In 1982, Richard Nixon’s war on drugs and law and order had a simple target-- black people. Nixon’s advisor admitted that if they got the public to associate black people with drugs, it would be easier to vilify them on the news. Presuming guilt towards poc when the media already portrays them as animals, murderers, drug abusers and rapists makes it easier to incarcerate them which is what happened to the Central Park Five. Donald Trump even paid $85,000 on a full page newspaper ad calling for the death penalty upon the boys. (13th). All the above prejudice can influence a jury decision and lead to a wrongful conviction.
Wrongful convictions in 45% of DNA exonerations had to do with forensic science evidence. A collection of hair samples, saliva, semen, or fingerprints can be utilized in a court of law to determine innocence or guilt (Innocence Project). The issues involving forensic is that prosecutors tend to look for evidence that incriminates the defendant, rather than ones that prove their innocence. Misconduct also occurs when evidence is hidden that could potentially influence a jury verdict. In the United States, there has been over 2,000 exonerations with roughly 20% being exonerated by DNA . Part of the reason for all these exonerations is that forensic science has improved over time. On the contrary, evidence can be misused, misplaced, or unreliable yet still lead to convictions. Forensic science is also often disregarded by the jury in comparison to false confessions, eyewitness misidentification and testimonies. The jury is most likely to believe a confident testimony over science (Schapiro 897, 903). During the Central Park Five trial, semen was found at the crime scene that did not match any of the boys. Prosecutors attempted to hide this evidence but failed. A singular hair that “looked” like the victim’s hair was found on Kevin’s pants. No hair analysis was performed, yet the jury could make their assumptions. Furthermore, the confession tapes presented in court were highly edited as Elizabeth admitted to tampering with it. Forensic science had been disregarded and evidence had been misused. No matter how hard the defendants fought, it seemed useless when their guilt was already assumed.
The criminal justice system is a game of the rich versus the poor. If you’re rich, you can post bail and leave and if you’re indigent, you have to stay and serve the time. More often than not, people of color serve longer sentences due to indigency (13th). In a high profile case in 2020, a white ex-officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged for the murder of George Floyd, a black man, in May. Derek posted a bond of $1 million in October and is currently free until his trial in March 2021 (NBC). Indigent people don’t have the luxury of roaming the streets as they await a conviction; they have to wait in a jail cell like a criminal despite the possibility of innocence. Indigent clients can also receive wrongful convictions as they don’t have access to the best lawyers which leaves prosecutors on a higher pedestal. Without proper comprehension of the subject matter, incompetent lawyers can overlook misconduct done by prosecutors and assume their client is guilty because they don’t know how to properly defend them (Schapiro 911). Of the 5 lawyers defending the boys, only one of them was a criminal defense lawyer; the others were divorce lawyers, activists or former cops. During the trial, the prosecutor’s only strong lead was the conflicting confession tapes, yet they presented a thorough, strong case that moved the jury. Despite the defendants’ stance on their innocence and evidence presented in court, the jury seemed to have disregarded it and labeled them guilty. The boys got sentenced to 5 to 15 years in prison and served 6 to 14 years. The justice system had failed them.
After giving up their childhood and early adulthood to the system, they were left having to rebuild their lives. Their convictions were acquitted in 2002 when the real perpetrator, Matias Reyes, confessed to the raping of Patricia. Not only did his confession accurately describe the crime in comparison to the boys, but his DNA matched the semen that was found at the crime scene. If justice was carried out throughout the trial process, five boys would have avoided years of criminal and racial injustice. The only conclusion to draw is that the United States’ criminal justice system needs reform. Despite many causes, the underlying issues are: eyewitness misidentification, forensic science, false confessions, police/prosecutorial misconduct, indigent clients, incompetent lawyers and racial injustice. Finding the proper solution is crucial in establishing trust between the people and those who swore to honor and protect. Each case needs to be treated with the same level of scrutiny and fairness, not just high profile cases. With the help of organizations such as the Innocence Project and the National Registry of Exonerations, thousands are able to seek their innocence.
13th. (USA: Ava DuVernay, 2016)
“DNA Exonerations in the United States” Innocence Project. https://www.innocenceproject.org/dna-exonerations-in-the-united-states/
“Derek Chauvin, Ex-Officer Charged in Floyd’s Death Released on $1M Bond.” NBC4 Washington. (October 7, 2020): https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/national-international/derek-chauvin-ex-officer-charged-in-floyds-death-released-from-prison/2438359/
“Overturning Wrongful Convictions Involving Misapplied Forensics” Innocence Project. https://www.innocenceproject.org/overturning-wrongful-convictions-involving-flawed-forensics/
Rogers, Jamala. “Prosecutorial crimes and corruption: The (white) elephant in the courtroom.” St. Louis University Law Journal. (Summer 2017): 691-693
Schapiro, Erin. “Wrongful Convictions: Not just an American phenomenon?: An investigation into the causes of wrongful convictions in the United States, Germany, Italy, and Japan.” Emory International Law Review. (2020): 897-911