If Wrongful Convictions Are Tragic Mistakes, Then Why Can’t We Learn From Them?


When Innocence Project client

Angel Gonzalez

walked out of the Dixon Correctional Center in Illinois in early 2015 after having spent more than 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, one could have been forgiven for expecting that his exoneration would have triggered a wave of national soul searching over the criminal justice system’s failures and prompted widespread debate into the necessary steps for preventing future wrongful convictions.

But despite a growing national conversation on criminal justice reform, which in its infancy was spurred by the growing understanding of the terrible fact of wrongful convictions, and spearheaded in part by President Obama, addressing the known contributing factors that lead to the conviction of the innocent remains out of the center of the discussion.  

“When a system produces an error, it is a tragedy for the person on the wrong side of the mistake. But it is also a precious learning opportunity, a chance to figure out what went wrong, and make reforms to the system to ensure that the same mistakes don’t happen again,” writes journalist and author Matthew Syed in a new article published in the

New Statesman

. “That’s the power of learning from mistakes,” he says.

So why is our criminal justice system so stubborn despite exoneration after exoneration; despite the well-documented mistakes made by law enforcement officials, defense attorneys, and prosecutors alike? 

The key, suggests the author, lies in the cognitive dissonance experienced by those who commit the errors in the first place.

“Many of these DNA cases show unequivocal failures. They demonstrate almost beyond a doubt that mistakes were made by the police, prosecution and courts,” says Syed. “This should have led to an acknowledgement of error, and meaningful reform. In fact, the astonishing thing is not that the system – or at least the people behind it – learned, but the extent to which it continued to evade and deny . . . The problem was not the strength of the evidence, which was often overwhelming; it was the psychological difficulty in accepting it.”

This form of cognitive dissonance exists, in part, due to the inability of experts to accept the truth when exposed to the reality of their mistakes. Instead, Syed points out, when confronted with evidence that directly challenges our deep convictions, “we are more likely to reframe the evidence than we are to alter our beliefs.”

“We simply invent new reasons, new justifications, new explanations. Sometimes we ignore the evidence altogether,” he adds.

According to Syed, this is the reason why numerous legal campaigners favor the creation of so-called innocence commissions as “the most robust way” to improve the system, reduce wrongful convictions and increase rightful ones at the same time. Innocence commissions are independent bodies, mandated to investigate wrongful convictions and to recommend reforms.

However, Syed notes, only 11 states in the United States have such commissions.

Read the

New Statesman



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