I am a law student at the Faculty of Law at McGill University in Montreal, QC. This summer, I will be interning with the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), a non-profit organization whose mandate is to identify, advocate for, and exonerate individuals who have been convicted of a crime they did not commit and to prevent wrongful convictions through legal education and reform.
For more information: http://www.aidwyc.org
This internship I will take part in will involve working towards raising awareness about wrongful convictions, and seeking reform and improvement of the criminal justice system as a whole. Your help and support will enable me to spend a summer in Toronto working towards educating and raising awareness about wrongful convictions and helping to secure the freedom of those who are innocent of serious crimes for which they continue to serve sentences in Canadian prisons.
Thank you for your support!
A. Wrongful Convictions
As the rate of exonorations have increased in recent years, wrongful convictions have revealed disturbing fissures and trends in our criminal justice system. The most common causes of convicting the innocent show us how the criminal justice system is broken – and how urgently it needs to be fixed. Putting innocent people in prison institutionalizes them; for them, prison is painful, and incarcerated persons often suffer long-term consequences from having been subjected to pain, deprivation, and extremely atypical patterns and norms of living and interacting with others. The longer someone is incarcerated the more significant the nature of the institutional transformation. Wrongful convictions are therefore a very severe punishment for the factually innocent.
B. Triple failure
Public confidence in the criminal justice system is undermined when wrongful convictions a represent a triple failure of justice:
- an innocent person has been convicted and imprisoned;
- the truly guilty person was allowed to go free and, potentially, commit further crimes; and,
- the victim’s family, who had a sense of closure with the conviction, has been re-victimized by opening an emotional wound, which, with an increasingly cold evidentiary trail, may never be healed.
The main causes of wrongul convictions are:
- Eyewitness Misidentification: "Eyewitness identification error is one of the primary contributors to wrongful convictions. In fact, according to the Innocence Project, it was a contributing cause in approximately 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. Eyewitness evidence can be unreliable for a variety of reasons including but not limited to stress, emotions, lighting and distance issues, and memory recall."
- Unreliable or Limited Science: "DNA analysis was first introduced to the criminal justice system in the 1980s, and has aided in the exoneration of many innocent people. The results of forensic analysis techniques such as hair microscopy, bite mark comparisons, firearm tool mark analysis, shoe comparisons and blood typing that were accepted in criminal courts as reliable have come under serious scrutiny in recent years. Moreover, reliable forensic techniques are still subject to human interpretation and identification, so there is always the potential for error"
- False Confessions: "Why would someone falsely confess? Once taken into police custody, individuals are often pressured during interrogations to admit guilt in order to receive a benefit. Interrogations may not be recorded in their entirety, with only the final confession making the cut. The accused may be threatened (physically and/or psychologically) during interrogation, and not informed of his or her rights. Accused individuals have been held without access to water, toilet facilities, food, and legal counsel. Although it is now mandatory in many jurisdictions that interrogations be recorded, the above practices are still commonplace and there is a lack of awareness of the extent of the problem."
- Government Misconduct: "Procedural issues relating to how a case is tried can have dire consequences regarding wrongful convictions. The withholding of evidence from the defence is an example of professional misconduct. With few exceptions, the accused and his or her counsel are entitled to have access to all evidence the Crown has, including exculpatory evidence. Tunnel vision is a significant problem under the umbrella of professional misconduct. Tunnel vision was defined as '…a single-minded and overly narrow focus on a particular investigative or prosecutorial theory, so as to unreasonably colour the evaluation of information received and one’s conduct in response to the information.' In some cases, police and prosecutors seek to find evidence that fits their theory as opposed to developing a theory on the basis of existing evidence."
- Informants or Snitches: "In 15% of wrongful conviction cases overturned through DNA testing, statements from people with incentives to testify — particularly incentives that are not disclosed to the jury — were critical evidence used to convict an innocent person."
- Systemic Discrimination: "In Canada, Aboriginal people are drastically overrepresented in the criminal justice system. As of February 2013, 23.2% of the federal inmate population was Aboriginal yet Aboriginal people comprise only 4.3% of the Canadian population. While we will never be sure of the numbers, there is good reason to believe that Aboriginal people are wrongly convicted at rates higher than their non-Aboriginal counterparts" (Source: AIDWYC).