In their zealous desire to solve a case, police often overlook – usually inadvertently but occasionally by design – procedures intended to ensure that the right person is charged with a crime. Overly suggestive identification techniques, coercive interrogation tactics, and failure to follow up on leads inconsistent with the investigative officers’ theory of the case have all contributed to wrongful convictions. When police officers already believe themselves certain that they have caught the right man, their one-on-one show-ups, suggestive lineups, and coerced identifications have often placed the wrong person in jail. Violence and dishonesty toward suspects have both resulted in many false confessions that have led inevitably to wrongful convictions.
Unscrupulous tactics by prosecutors have also caused many wrongful convictions. Dishonest prosecutors can easily suppress or destroy exculpatory evidence. They can fabricate evidence. They frequently use unreliable and untruthful witnesses and snitches. They are most likely to behave unethically in cases that are high profile, generating considerable press coverage and a public demand for quick resolution. In some particularly high-profile cases, prosecutors have become convinced that a particular suspect was the actual perpetrator even when other factors suggested innocence or even alternative suspects.
We believe that all jurisdictions should adopt open-file discovery procedures, meaning that the defense has access to all information, both inculpatory and exculpatory, in the possession of the police and the prosecution. Law enforcement agencies should train their officers to document all exculpatory, as well as inculpatory, evidence about a particular suspect and to include this information in their official reports to ensure that all exculpatory information comes to the attention of prosecutors and subsequently to defense attorneys. Law enforcement agencies should train their officers to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry, whether they point toward or away from a particular suspect. During the initial training of their officers and during refresher training for experienced officers, law enforcement agencies should present studies of wrongful convictions to highlight the pitfalls of “tunnel vision.”
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