Guest Post: Learning from Wrongful Convictions
By Catherine K. Eloranto, J.D.
Associate Professor, Criminal Justice
Clinton Community College, Plattsburgh, NY
“Well he must be guilty of something.”
That comment from a graduating criminal justice major floored me. It was my second year of teaching, and I had just described
battle to prove his innocence. That moment was a turning point for me. I knew that this area of the state was dotted with prisons, many of which employ the parents, uncles, brothers and sisters of my students. What I did not realize was how doggedly the students would cling to the view that if someone landed in prison, they must have committed a crime.
As a former prosecutor and judge, I am keenly aware of the cracks in the criminal justice system. The promise of “justice for all” is more true for some than for others. And I knew I had to find a way to challenge the students’ perceptions and beliefs without alienating them. This began my connection with the Innocence Project. That first year, when we got to the issue of the death penalty in ethics class, I used data from the Innocence Project website, but students still weren’t grasping the serious flaws each wrongful conviction revealed in the criminal justice system.
As I read more from the website, I felt a greater urgency to help students understand the ramifications of wrongful convictions. My goal was twofold: to convey the information in a meaningful way, and to help them learn to think critically about important issues. With these goals in mind, I created activities for my ethics and criminal procedure classes.
In ethics, I have the students write a paper analyzing the arguments for and against the death penalty. They are required to go to
, and read the case history of one or more individuals who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. This is an eye-opening experience for the students, as for the first time they read about and see the picture of someone who could have been executed, but for the dedicated work of the Innocence Project and others. I use case examples to demonstrate the causes of wrongful convictions. When we look at forensic science misconduct, the students examine the case of former Mississippi Medical Examiner Steven Hayne, whose misconduct was brought to light by the Innocence Project. Through an integrated approach, the conclusions are inevitable.
In criminal procedure, I focus on eyewitness misidentification as a cause of wrongful convictions. We discuss the constitutional requirements of
Stovall v. Denno
, 388 U.S. 293 (1967) (in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that unnecessarily suggestive identification procedures, and by extension any resulting conviction, would violate due process), the
, and examine current law enforcement procedures. Again, to bring it home in a personal way, they go to the Innocence Project website to read data on wrongful convictions based on misidentification, and to read and discuss specific cases where eyewitness misidentification caused wrongful convictions.
At the end of each semester, I have students write about the most important things they learned in class. Since I have begun emphasizing the issue of wrongful conviction, 25-30% of students discuss wrongful convictions. They get it, and I no longer hear “Well he must be guilty of something.”
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