Is the Current Federal Government “Wrong on Crime”?

January 30, 2015: MP Joyce Murray’s “Breakfast Connections”

Thx to (wrongly convicted) Tom Sophonow for his presence here this morning….

Before addressing the topic at hand, let me tell you about the most egregious case of wrongful conviction in Canadian history.

As I chronicle in my book, Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry, Henry was convicted in 1983 for 10 sex crimes; declared a dangerous offender six months later; spent the next 27 years in jail—-all of this for crimes he did not commit.

Acquitted in 2010, he has been waiting, going on five long years, for a dime in compensation. Instead of coming to grips with the inevitable fact that Henry, a senior citizen, is factually innocent, the federal and provincial governments continues to throw up legal roadblocks every step of the way. Meanwhile, Henry lives close to the poverty line.

Having tracked the injustices that befell Henry for almost four years, I conclude that every criminal justice stakeholder failed to protect and defend the “presumption of innocence” owed to every citizen—the police, the prosecutors, his own lawyer at the preliminary hearing; state-appointed psychiatrists, the parole board, Correctional Service of Canada; and the many politicians who were asked, over the years, to reopen his case.

The “presumption of innocence”, once lost, is almost impossible to restore. Absent DNA evidence, an iron-clad alibi, or the confession of the actual culprit, findings of “factual innocence” remain elusive. In Henry’s case, the state “lost” the semen samples and made no attempt to check out his alibi statement. As for the “actual culprit”, the state—for reasons I have yet to uncover—made Henry the scapegoat and let the real perpetrator go free.

For years, wrongful conviction inquiry commissioners have been recommending that, rather than treat claims of wrongful conviction on a piece-mail basis—as is happening with Henry—the British model should be adopted, namely the investigation of claims of wrongful conviction should be handled by a review agency independent of government. Further, it is that independent review agency, not the federal Minister, who should act as the gate-keeper.

“Change is needed,” said the commissioner in the David Milgaard case, “to reflect the current understanding of the inevitability of wrongful convictions and the responsibility of the criminal justice system to correct its own errors….

We are still awaiting the establishment of such an independent agency. Please do what you can to propel forward this important initiative.
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POLITICS OF FEAR

Is Canada’s new “punishment agenda” “wrong on crime?”

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
But thus I counsel you my friends: Mistrust all in whom the urge to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces.

Sadly, the current Federal government is all hangman and bloodhound. To the best of my knowledge—I stand to be corrected—the word “rehabilitation” has never crossed the PM’’s lips.

What is the current policy, why is it wrong, and what can be done to convince Canadians to push back?

THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK

The Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA), enacted in 1992, governs the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).The CCRA strives—and this may surprise you—to, and I quote, “strike a fair balance between the two inter-related strategies of control and assistance—

“Control” meaning exercising reasonable, safe, secure, and humane control of offenders both in correctional institutions and under supervision in the community; and
“Assistance” meaning assisting and encouraging offenders to become law-abiding citizens.

The Act further provides:

The principal goal is public safety. This is promoted by proper control of offenders and with programs that help individuals rehabilitate. Rehabilitation programs are important because most offenders will complete their sentence and return to the community….

It is important to prepare inmates for a successful return to the community as law-abiding citizens. This strategy contributes to long-term public safety.

WAR ON CRIME

In 2011, the Tories removed the “faint hope” clause that allowed lifers to apply to a jury after 15 years for the right to an early parole hearing.

In 2012, they enacted Bill C-10: Safe Streets and Communities Act. As predicted, the Act has led to the need for more prisons; the incarceration of people for minor, non-violent offences; and poorer prison conditions including over-crowding, fewer “pro-social programs, and a higher incidence of “administrative” solitary confinement—Bottom line? Isolation of indeterminate duration.

The government, showing no signs of slowing down on its “war on crime”, has recently announced plans to make violent repeat criminals wait longer to achieve “statutory release.” As well, the Tories want to end the possibility of parole for some convicted killers.

Addressing the impact of Bill C-10 in his 2014 Annual Report, Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers said,

“Use of force interventions, inmate fights and assaults, offender grievances and segregation placements are all trending upward in recent years. Key indicators against which safe and humane custody may be measured show there is more crowding, more disease and more violence in federal institutions.
Prisons that are filled beyond their rated cell capacities are at higher risk of jeopardizing safety and security of the person. Unnatural or preventable deaths in custody (suicides, homicides, overdoses) are perhaps the most visible failing, but too many other lives either are cut short by premature death or are marked by injury.

An increasing proportion of the offender population is spending more of their sentence behind bars before first release…”

I have been asked to share this morning what I have learned—as a result of both my volunteer activities in prison and research for my book—about current prison conditions.

Increasingly, inmates are being deprived of educational and job training opportunities; hurdles are being erected to such things as creative writing classes, access to good quality books and book clubs. Access to programs, spiritual leaders and other mentors such as teachers and librarians is being restricted; prison farms are being shut down; access to independent psychologists is almost unheard of, etc.

After volunteering for 8 months, on Friday mornings, as a creative writing instructor at Matsqui Medium Security institution, one day I was “escorted”, out of the blue, off the property. Not a word of explanation; not a hint of an apology.

Months later, I was told the reason: I hadn’t taken a 3-hour volunteer training program, a program I had no idea existed…. I never went back. (I’ve talked to other volunteers who’ve had the same experience—the experience of not feeling wanted—especially among those who develop rapport with the inmates.)

When I developed pen-pal and “visitor” relationships with a number of prisoners, CSC treated me like an alien: On the one hand, to every appearance I was engaged in “pro-social” behaviour—behaviour aimed at assisting in the reintegration process. On the other hand, it was clear they believed I had some kind of ulterior motive.

I was once put on notice that I was writing to too many inmates; on another occasion, that I couldn’t be on more than one inmate’s visitor’s list, etc. When I threatened to go public, CSC backed down….

How many other families and loved ones would have the gumption to do likewise?

[One brief ray of light: Though I expressed frustration at the Joyce Murray breakfast that CSC appeared poised to reject my offer to donate my book to every federal correctional institution in Canada, they have now said I may. Needless to say, I would have gone public had they not.]
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LIGHTING A FIRE UNDER OUR CITIZENS

A. The Problem

By hyper-focusing on the rights and interests of the “victim”, our prime minister plays into what Dan Gardner has called the “science and politics of fear.”

In his excellent book, Risk (2008, Virgin), Gardner writes that humanity has never had it so good. Most people around the world are better off and will live longer than their ancestors.

But instead of being relaxed, we are scared that bad things will happen to us: nuclear war, cancer, child abduction.

Our brain anatomy, Gardner says, was fixed millennia ago—such that we are not equipped to process the complexity of modern living, especially where risk is concerned. We hear about a terrorist attack; we see the gruesome consequences on TV and, before we can calculate the probability that we personally will be blown up, our brains have reacted as if we are being charged by a rhino: no time to think! Run!

If you think you don’t believe everything you see on TV, he says, it doesn’t matter. Your Stone Age brain has processed the images and is using them to shape your opinions whether you like it or not.

“It could have been me” is a common response to news of a disaster, although usually the mathematical probability of it actually having been you is infinitesimal. FEAR SELLS.

The only solution, Gardner says, is to think more, think harder—The primitive part of our brains might be open to seduction by alarmist politicians, but, given enough time, the rational part can step in and stop us from going all the way.

Alas, if only re-programming were that easy…

Ask yourself: Are you a “free-range” parent or grandparent—content to give children as much freedom as possible, for example, play in the park or walk home from school alone; etc? Or do you catastrophize—worry about the ills could befall them—abduction, getting hit by a car, getting lost, etc?

B. The “Right on Crime” movement: Shifting the narrative

According to Texas Republican Representative Jerry Madden, “It’s a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build them, I guarantee you they will come. They’ll be filled, OK? Because people will send them there.”

Texas and California, among other jurisdictions who had started down the same “punishment” road down which our government is leading us, are now—realizing it cost too much and made their justice system worse—reversing direction.

The topic today is whether Canada’s new punishment justice policy is ‘Wrong on Crime’? Ironically, this “Right on Crime” movement-led by Republicans, no less—is building momentum in the United States.

In an article entitled “The Conservative Case for Reform,” dozens of high-ranking Republicans including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich write as follows:

“Too often the lens of accountability regarding government services has not focused as much on public safety policies as other areas of government. As such, Corrections spending is now the second fastest growing area of state budgets—trailing only Medicaid.

“Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending…. A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders—making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered….

“An ideal criminal justice system works to reform amenable offenders who will return to society…

“Because incentives affect human behavior, policies for both offenders and the Corrections system must align incentives with our goals of public safety, victim restitution and satisfaction, and cost-effectiveness, thereby moving from a system that grows when it fails to one that rewards results.”

Viewed in the light of a system that “rewards results”, what sense does it make to remove the “faint hope” clause? Lock up low-risk offenders? Increase the time virtually every offender must spend behind bars?

From an economic perspective, does it make sense to deny forever the opportunity–not the reality—of parole to those convicted of certain first-degree murder offences? [Since the Joyce Murray breakfast, the government, anticipating court blow-back, has amended the bill so as to give judges the right to preclude parole applications for 40 (from the current 25) years.]

This despite Correctional watchdog Howard Sapers’ statement that 99 per cent of offenders released on day parole or full parole last year did so without reoffending.

Since the abolishment of capital punishment in 1976, the murder rate in Canada has been cut in half. Further facts:

—Canada has 1115 (first-degree murder) offenders sentenced to life, minimum 25 years. 203 have been paroled;

—Average cost to keep a man in Maximum security is $148,000 v. $35,000 on parole;

—40 years in jail would cost nearly $6 million for one person in Maximum security; $6 billion for 1,000; and

—In recent years, the website of CSC has described those serving life sentences as “The most likely to succeed on parole.”

The authors of “Right on Crime” point to the need take a principled approach to public safety. As they wrote, “Our security, prosperity, and freedom depend on it.”
Who would have thought that our Republican friends south of the border could offer their neighbours north of the ’49—neighbours historically smug about our supposedly “superior” criminal justice system—such invaluable insights?

As a wonderful prison chaplain once said to me, “Let he who has ears hear.” Let’s hope that we Canadians do just that.

Ivan Henry’s Charter Argument

Lawyers for Henry—the BCCLA and David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights appearing as Intervenors—argued before the Supreme Court of Canada in November 2014 that malice on the part of the prosecutor – or any state actor – has no role to play in determining the availability of damages as a constitutional remedy.

http://bit.ly/1Bs7c9h

Fingers crossed but, even if the SCC says no, Henry’s “malicious prosecution” argument has every likelihood—-if his lawyers amend their pleadings to add the prosecutor’s 1. introducing two fake lineup photos; and 2.substituion of exhibits at trial—-of succeeding.

Two Chokeholds: #ICan’tBreathe

The two images are brutal—different yet the same. Two separate, yet similar,  instances—32 years apart; one in Vancouver, Canada in 1982; the other in NYC, USA in 2014–of police brutality in the form of illegal chokeholds.

@iwmh_Ivan was dragged into a lineup and placed in a chokehold by the Vancouver Police Department. This, despite the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada had earlier ruled that participation in lineups is strictly voluntary. Eleven of the original fifteen complainants identified him at the preliminary hearing on the basis of the scene depicted in this photo. Though Ivan survived the lineup, he spent the next 27 years in prison as a dangerous sex offender for 10 sex crimes he did not commit.

43-year old Eric Garner, father of six screamed #Ican’tbreathe and died directly as the result of the chokehold.

What will it take to hold our police accountable?

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Make DNA Testing Available to Convicted Persons Claiming Innocence

Wide Reach of Wrongful Convictions

Posted: October 27, 2014 1:09 pm

Twenty years ago, Jennifer Thompson was a college student when she was sexually assaulted in her North Carolina apartment and burglarized. The following month, Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as the assailant and he was eventually convicted and sentenced to life plus fifty-four years. Cotton remained behind bars for a decade until DNA testing proved his innocence and identified the real perpetrator as Bobby Pool.  The DNA testing also revealed that Thompson had misidentified her attacker. Thompson describes the traumatic experience of the attack and the haunting effects of wrongful conviction in an op-ed that appeared in Sunday’s edition of The Hill. She writes:

My rage and hatred had been misplaced. I was wrong.  I had sent an innocent man to prison.  A third of his life was over, and the shame, guilt and fear began to suffocate me.  I had let down everyone — the police department, the district attorney’s office, the community, the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole, and especially Ronald Cotton and his family.

Several years after Ronald was freed, I received a phone call from Bobby Poole’s last victim.  I remember hearing her story about what happened to her and realizing that we all had left him on the streets to commit further crimes – rapes — that we possibly could have prevented if Ronald had not been locked up for something he had never done.  The knowledge that Mr. Poole had been left at liberty to hurt other women paralyzed me and sent me into a backward spiral that took years to recover from.

This journey has taught me that the impact of wrongful convictions goes so much further than a victim and the wrongfully convicted.  The pool of victims from 1984 was huge – me, Ron, the police department, our families, and the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole all suffered.

In the years following Cotton’s release, he and Thompson forged an unlikely friendship and co-author the memoir Picking Cotton, about the harrowing experience of Thompson’s misidentification.  Her experience as a victim and the role she played in Cotton’s wrongful conviction has shed light on the need for legislation to protect the innocent.

Thompson writes: “The Justice for All Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress, allows men like Ronald to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that can lead to their freedom and to the conviction of the guilty.  Without access to such testing, innocent men will remain in prison, real perpetrators will remain free and new victims will have to experience the same horrors and indignities that I did.  I urge Congress to pass the Justice For All Act now so that we can live in a world where the truly guilty are behind bars and the innocent are free.”

Fallibility of Eye-Witness Testimony (Megan Cassidy; The Republic)

Three decades ago, a victim’s imperfect memory sent Larry Youngblood to prison.

DNA evidence would later clear the Tucson man of involvement with a 1983 child abduction and rape, but not before he would languish for a total of nine years behind bars.

Advocates are pointing to this case and a growing number of others to discredit the sanctity of one of the legal system’s most cherished prosecutorial tools: eyewitness testimony.

Last week, the National Academy of Sciences released a report evaluating the scientific research on memory and eyewitnesses, underlining key variables that can lead to flawed identifications.

The report recommends various best-practice procedures, including blind testing, (when the officer performing the lineup is unaware of the suspect), videotaping the procedure, developing standardized witness instructions and asking the witness to rate his or her level of confidence at the time of the lineup.

The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public-policy organization that lobbies for freedom of the wrongfully convicted, has pushed for states to uniformly adopt these techniques, to mixed results.

Ten states so far have enacted the recommendations by law, policy or court action. Arizona is not one of them, but some jurisdictions have voluntarily embraced the reforms.

Innocence Project officials have advocated presenting photos or suspects in sequential order instead of simultaneously. Supporters say research shows the method helps prevent wrongful convictions by reducing the pressure to “pick one.”

The Tucson Police Department was one of four agencies to participate in an Innocence Project and American Judicature Society field study using sequential testing. The agency adopted the method following the study’s report, said Tucson police legal adviser Lisa Judge.

“The impetus for us was doing what we could to rely on the most credible evidence available,” she said. “Certainly you can’t ignore that across the nation, there’s evidence that points to wrongful convictions based on bad IDS.”

Youngblood’s saga began in 1983, when a 10-year-old boy was kidnapped from a Pima County carnival, molested and held for more than an hour. The boy received a rape examination and told investigators his assailant was a Black man with a bad right eye.

But when police presented a photo lineup to the boy nine days later, it was Youngblood, a Black Tucson man with a disfigured left eye, who stood out. Youngblood was arrested four weeks later.

Youngblood’s chief defense in trial was that the boy had been mistaken, but a jury disagreed. He was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to 10½ years in prison. In a crucial misstep, Tucson police failed to properly store DNA evidence collected from the boy at the time, rendering it useless for emerging forensic technology.

Legal battles over Youngblood’s right to DNA would free and reincarcerate the man until more sophisticated DNA testing became available for the evidence. In 2000, Youngblood’s claims of innocence were at last scientifically validated. He was not the assailant.

Instead, the evidence led investigators to Walter Cruise, a Black man who was blind in his right eye, and serving time in a Texas prison for unrelated charges of sex assaults against children. Cruise later pleaded guilty to the Arizona crime.

Carol Wittels, Youngblood’s public defender who fought for his freedom, said the prosecution’s case hinged nearly entirely on the victim’s identification, despite conflicting evidence.

Several people vouched for Youngblood’s alibi — that he was baking lemon meringue pies at the time of the abduction, Wittels said.

The victim had also noted there were tufts of gray in his assailant’s hair, while a hair expert testified that Youngblood’s black locks had never been dyed.

“Larry’s case always haunted me — he was such a sweetie,” she said. “I knew he was innocent.”

Eyewitness misidentifications have contributed to 72 percent of the 318 convictions that were later overturned by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.

The true perpetrators were later identified in 39 percent of those cases, but were free to commit 98 additional violent crimes while the innocent were locked up, the organization says.

Experts say most of the mistaken eyewitnesses aren’t intentionally lying. While no single factor shoulders the blame for the human error, researchers say police practices often fall short on their efforts to ensure accurate eyewitness identification.

“(I)nsufficient training, the absence of standard operating procedures and the continuing presence of actions and statements at the crime scene and elsewhere may intentionally or unintentionally influence eyewitness identifications,” the report states.

Scientists have long understood memory to be malleable by time and outside variables, but advocates say jurors still place too much trust on the brain’s accuracy.

Amshula Jayaram, a state policy advocate for the Innocence Project, explains the recommended reforms as a cost-benefit analysis.

Defenders are getting trained on how to litigate using current sciences, she said, and officers using best practices are also protecting themselves from accusations of wrongdoing during an unreliable process.

“These practices are designed to improve accuracy, but you’ll never have 100 percent accurate eyewitness identifications,” she said. “Memory is fundamentally fallible.”

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said today it would be a rare case that rises or falls on the basis of an eyewitness alone without any other evidence.

Montgomery and Innocence Project officials have disagreed on the subject of sequential versus simultaneous eyewitness identification testing.

Montgomery said he has resisted the reform because scientific evidence has not backed up the claim that the sequential method is preferable. He pointed to a recent case in which a Pennsylvania man’s murder charges were dropped after a mistaken sequential identification.

“Innocence on Trial”—Book Review

ANOTHER WRONGFUL CONVICTION: IVAN HENRY “INNOCENCE ON TRIAL” by JOAN MCEWEN

BarristerI admit it…I’m a crime junkie. I’ve read every true crime book written by Ann Rule and Jack Olsen. I’m also a big fan of America’s Most Wanted, and I frequently peruse the FBI Most Wanted List. Don’t hate me when I tell you that I follow the executions in the States, even though I’m against capital punishment.

Having established my credentials to review Vancouver lawyer Joan McEwen’s new book “Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry” Heritage House Publishing 2014, I should also add that I’m a criminology graduate and have been married to a police officer for almost three decades.

Beginning with Steven Truscott and on to David Milgaard, Guy Morin, Romeo Phillion, Michael Morton and so many others, I have been horrified by the number of men who have languished in prison for crimes they did not commit, both in Canada and the United States.

But Joan McEwen’s story of the persecution of Ivan Henry brings it all home, right to our doorstep in Vancouver British Columbia, where a down-on-his-luck ex-con, father to two young daughters, found himself ensnared in a nightmare that still has not ended, after serving 27 years in prison.

Ivan Henry, age 35, was in an on-again/off-again relationship with ex- wife Jessie, a drug addict, when he was detained by the Vancouver Police Department as a burglary suspect. What he didn’t know was that the police were really after him for fifteen sexual assaults attributed to a sex offender the police called the “rip-off rapist”, based on the offender’s pretense that he was looking for someone who had stolen from him. Henry’s record contained one hit for attempted rape, a charge he pled guilty to on the advice of his lawyer when he lived in Winnipeg.

He denied being involved in any sexual offences and offered to take a polygraph test. The police declined his offer, but were adamant that he participate in a line-up. When he resisted, three “lean and mean” uniformed officers grabbed him and maneuvered him into a line with an assortment of their dark-haired colleagues, wrapping themselves around him, while holding his head of red hair in a vise-grip.

The photo of that line-up became a crucial part of Henry’s case and it was later revealed to be a “trophy”, retained by the trial judge, Mr. Justice Bouck, who proudly displayed it in the Judge’s Lounge in the courthouse at 800 Smithe Street, Vancouver. Cheap laughs…

Henry was immature and ornery, and too foolish to realize he was in water over his head when, after a preliminary hearing before His Honour Wallace Craig, he was committed to trial for ten counts of rape. Before his 1983 jury trial began Henry fired his legal aid lawyer. When offered the services of legal star, Richard Peck as trial counsel, Henry declined, believing the system was rigged and that Peck was just another player in the grand conspiracy against him.

How difficult could it be? There was no evidence against him: no hair, fibre, DNA , confession, or eye witnesses, and he had an alibi for many of the times he was alleged to be in flagrante delicto.
His trial tactics were unconventional, to say the least. Because he knew he had not assaulted any of the parade of women who identified him as their rapist, some of whom said they recognized his voice, he argued they were all liars…making it all up.

Before the trial completed Henry came to the realization that while he could handle the facts, he needed a lawyer to help him with the law. When he asked Mr. Justice Bouck to allow him to obtain a lawyer for that purpose, Bouck J. said:

“You should have thought of that before…I said you should have a lawyer. You turned it down. You elected to represent yourself. You take the chances…We’ve given you a copy of Martin’s Criminal Code.”

After ten hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Ivan Henry on all ten counts, whereafter Crown Counsel Mike Luchenko announced the Crown was seeking a dangerous offender designation. As night follows day, Henry was “bitched”, the expression used to describe criminals found to be “habitual” or dangerous offenders.

Henry poured over law books in preparation for his appeal but could not afford the thousands of dollars required for the court transcripts. Eventually he appeared before British Columbia’s Court of Appeal on a motion to dismiss the appeal for want of prosecution, brought by appellate crown Al Stewart, later Mr. Justice Stewart. Of course, the
Crown won and Henry was banished to purgatory. Later his leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was also rebuked.

Ms. McEwen’s carefully researched story reveals indifference, betrayal, class discrimination, and worst of all, a cast of characters who didn’t give a damn about Ivan Henry. He was just the usual collateral damage in the state’s zeal to close the books on a series of assaults that continued after Henry was locked away.

As the truth spills out, we learn that Ivan Henry’s ex-wife, sold him down the river, a la Judas Iscariot, in exchange for a few pieces of silver and gold, that ended up in her arm.

The unfortunate women who were victimized by a rapist, were then victims of a justice system that wasn’t really interested in the truth, for if it had been, they could have seen it staring in their face.

It is difficult to say who comes off worse in this sordid tale. Based on Ms. McEwen’s careful narrative, it must be a tie between Crown Counsel Mike Luchenko and trial judge Mr. Justice Bouck, both of whom deserve censure for the roles they played. By 1983, it was no secret that eyewitness testimony was unreliable and could never, by itself, be the foundation for a life sentence. But that’s what happened.

Years later, when one of the heroines of this story, Crown Counsel, Jean Connor , voiced her suspicions to the Attorney-General, concerning the convictions of Ivan Henry, McEwen reports that Mr. Luchenko tried, undeservingly, to take credit for an eleventh hour redemption.

With twists and turns galore, and an unvarnished glimpse of Canada’s brutal prison system, Ms. McEwen’s book is a compelling must-read for anyone who still believes justice should be blind, and that it is better that ten guilty men go free than to have one innocent man suffer.

The Problem of Tunnel Vision in Criminal Justice

Posted on the Innocence Project Blogsite By: Keith Findley, Co-Director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project

The 160-plus post-conviction DNA exonerations of the last 15 years have exposed numerous problems that have contributed to convicting the innocent. One commonality in almost all of the cases, however, is that they feature some form of tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision is a natural human tendency with particularly pernicious effects in the criminal justice system. Tunnel vision is the process that leads investigators, prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers alike to focus on a particular outcome, and then to filter all evidence in a case through the lens provided by that outcome. Through that filter, all information that supports the adopted outcome is elevated in significance, viewed as consistent with the other evidence, and deemed relevant and probative, while evidence inconsistent with the chosen theory is easily overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant, incredible, or unreliable.

Tunnel vision both affects, and is affected by, other flawed procedures in the criminal justice system. Mistaken eyewitness identifications, for example—the most frequent single cause of wrongful convictions— can convince investigators early in a case that a particular individual is the perpetrator. Police and prosecutors, convinced of guilt, might recruit or encourage testimony from unreliable jailhouse snitches, who fabricate stories that the defendant confessed to them, in hopes that they will benefit in their own cases from cooperation with authorities. Or forensic scientists, aware of the desired result of their analyses, might be influenced—even unwittingly—to interpret ambiguous data to support the police theory, or worse, fabricate results. All of these additional pieces of evidence then enter a feedback loop, bolstering the witnesses’ confidence in the reliability and accuracy of their incriminating testimony, and in turn reinforcing the original assessment of guilt held by police, and ultimately prosecutors and courts.

Tunnel vision typically begins in the initial stages of criminal cases—during the police investigation. But tunnel vision is in fact more pervasive than that; it infects all phases of criminal proceedings, beginning with the investigation of cases, but then proceeding also through the prosecution, trial or plea-bargaining, appeal, and post-conviction stages.

Tunnel vision is a well-recognized phenomenon in the criminal justice system. Most of the official inquiries into specific wrongful convictions have noted the role that tunnel vision played in those individual cases of injustice. For example, former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s Commission on Capital Punishment, the Innocence Commission for Virginia, and official Canadian governmental inquiries, among others, have all identified tunnel vision as a significant problem in the cases in which an innocent person was wrongly convicted.

In some ways the criminal justice system demands or teaches tunnel vision overtly. For example, police are widely taught that, once they believe a suspect is guilty, they should interrogate the suspect by shutting down all denials of guilt and employing psychological tactics designed to achieve a single goal: a confession. And court rules make it difficult to present evidence of alternative, third-party suspects, or to introduce new evidence of innocence once a conviction has been obtained. Each of these processes can contribute to injustices when they contribute to focusing on an innocent person and unwillingness to consider the guilt of the true perpetrator.

Wrongful Convictions in Plea Bargaining

  • Anthony Conference
    Author: Kristin Smyth, Law Student, Osgoode Hall

    In 1989, Anthony Hanemaayer plead guilty to a sexual assault Paul Bernardo later confessed to. With AIDWYC’s help, Hanemaayer was exonerated in 2008.

    It is becoming increasingly apparent in Canadian society that the justice system is not perfect and that innocent people can and are convicted of crimes that they did not commit. The wrongful convictions of individuals like Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard have received considerable attention in the media and legal community. The concept of innocent people who plead guilty during “plea bargaining” is receiving more attention amongst legal commentators and laymen alike. Much of the concern stems from the contested role that a “bargain” should play in a judicial system dedicated to due process. It has been argued that the use of the word bargain implies that the justice system is a commodity that can be bought by those who understand how to work the system.[1] Canadian citizens have a right to the presumption of innocence and a right to a fair trial. “Backroom negotiations” with prosecutors call into question the fairness of the system.

    Why would an innocent person plead guilty?

    The question you have probably been asking is why would anyone in their right mind plead guilty to a crime that they did not commit? While it may be difficult to imagine, there are many reasons. First, going to trial is scary. For an accused, going to trial means uncertainty. Their lives are in the hands of the judge, and sometimes a jury, and no one can know for sure what either will do. On the other hand, if they negotiate with a Prosecutor, it is more likely they will receive a more lenient sentence than were they to go to trial and lose. This perceived security can be enough for an innocent person to plead guilty and admit to the crime, rather than risk a trial where the outcome can be much worse. Professor Ellen S. Podgor argues that “our existing legal system places the risk of going to trial…so high, that innocence and guilt no longer become the real considerations.”[2]

    Another reason someone may plead guilty is to avoid the significant financial, psychological and opportunity costs of going to trial. Not only can the trial process be terrifying to an accused, it’s expensive and stressful. Going to trial means usually means paying a lawyer for countless hours of work for a trial which could last months or even years. Furthermore, the accused cannot typically work while a trial is ongoing, costing them even more money.

    Psychological studies have assessed the decision making process that occurs when an innocent person is accused of something that they did not do. In one such study, college students were left in a room with one other “student” to complete logic problems. One of the students was then, wrongly, accused of cheating and given the option of either accepting a plea bargain or having to appear before the Academic Review Board (where 80-90% of students were found guilty). 56.4% of the innocent participants falsely admitted guilt in order to reduce the punishment given. Admittedly, the situation just described cannot capture the pressure and gravity of the choices that an innocent accused must make when standing before the criminal justice system. Nevertheless, the anxiety experienced while anticipating punishment is similar and the study can offer important preliminary insights.

     Why is the problem largely unrecognized?

    In 1973, the Ontario Law Reform Commission described plea bargaining as “an unhealthy philosophy quite alien to our concept of an open, fair and public administration of justice.”[3]Despite Canada’s historical unease with how plea bargaining interacts with judicial fairness, we have scant answers to our many questions concerning wrongful convictions in plea bargaining. Why don’t we know how many people plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit? The simple is because we rarely hear of the cases again. They don’t appeal. They don’t cause a fuss. Nobody asks questions. Wrongful convictions often only come to light as a result of the significant effort and resources expended by individuals in a search to uncover the truth.[4] It is often only the most serious of cases that benefit from those efforts and resources because the pay-off from success is greatest.[5] It is possible that many of the cases which involve innocent people who plead guilty were lesser offences and the convicted either did not have, or felt that it was not worth, the resources that would have been required to discover the truth. Based on these factors, it is likely that any study which looks at the problem of plea bargaining and false self-condemnation will significantly underestimate the true extent of the issue.[6]

    What is to be done?

    If Canada did not allow plea bargains, the justice system would come to a near standstill. Following the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R v Askov,[7] approximately 50,000 cases, in Ontario alone, had to be dismissed due to unreasonable delay. In response, the Martin Committee was assembled to review and make suggestions regarding pre-trial procedures in the criminal courts. The Martin Committee gave plea bargaining their stamp of approval to increase expediency. Today, a much higher proportion of convictions result from guilty pleas than from trials.[8]

    With the awareness that plea bargaining is not leaving the system anytime soon, how do we ensure that wrongful convictions do not occur? According to Judge H. Lee Sarokin, the only solution is “vigilance by all those involved.”[9] It is unclear whether this is the only solution. This is a question that needs to be asked by the legal community and more thorough research and discussion must occur if we ever hope to reach an acceptable answer.


    [1] G. A. Ferguson and D.W. Roberts, “Plea Bargaining Directions for Canadian Reform” (1974), 52 Can Bar Rev 497 at 550.

    [2] Ellen S. Podgor, “White Collar Innocence: Irrelevant in the High Stakes Risk Game” (2010) 85 Chicago-Kent L Rev 77 at 77.

    [3] The Law Reform Commission of Ontario, Report on Administration of Ontario Courts, Part II(Toronto: Department of Justice, 1973) at 119.

    [4] Ibid  at 4

    [5] Samuel Gross et al, “Exonerations in The United States 1989 Through 2003″ (2005) 95 J Crim L & Criminology 523.

    [6] Lucian E Dervan & Vanessa A. Edkins, “The Innocent Defendant’s Dilemma: An Innovative Empirical Study of Plea Bargaining’s Innocence Problem” (2013) 103 J Crim L & Criminology 1.

    [7] R v Askov, [1990] 2 SCR 1199.

    [8] Christopher Sherrin, “Guilty Pleas from the Innocent” (2011) 30 Windsor Rev Legal Soc Issues 1 at 2.

    [9] Judge H. Lee Sarokin, “Why do Innocent People Plead Guilty?” The Huffington Post (29 May 2012), online: Huffington Post <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judge-h-lee-sarokin/innocent-people-guilty-pleas_b_1553239.html>.

    Conviction: The AIDWYC Blog is written by volunteer authors. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent AIDWYC’s position or policies.

Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry – Book Release September 27, 2014

I’m very excited to announce that my book, Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry, published by Heritage House, has been released.

This book is about the trial and conviction of an innocent man. Ivan Henry was wrongfully convicted of of 10 sex crimes in 1983, and spent 27 years in prison as a dangerous offender. Throughout that time, he has fought relentlessly to prove his innocence.

I first learned of Ivan Henry when he appeared on TV the day he was acquitted by the BC Court of Appeal, in October 2010. For the past 3 1/2 years, I have taken up his cause to prove his innocence.

This book makes the case for Ivan’s innocence, which is the duty of society to protect. In understanding how Ivan’s case went so wrong, we can ensure that miscarriages of this kind do not reoccur. The book further makes the case that the Crown “maliciously prosecuted” Henry—not just that it treated him negligently or indifferently, but that it went after him with ill-intent—namely, maliciously.

Lineup photos

If you’re interested in learning more about Ivan’s case, I commend to you these articles: