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On January 20, 1984, Earl Washington—defended for all of forty minutes by a lawyer who had never tried a death penalty case—was found guilty of rape and murder in the state of Virginia and sentenced to death. After nine years on death row, DNA testing cast doubt on his conviction and saved his life. However, he spent another eight years in prison before more sophisticated DNA technology proved his innocence and convicted the guilty man.
DNA exonerations have shattered confidence in the criminal justice system by exposing how often we have convicted the innocent and let the guilty walk free. In this unsettling in-depth analysis, Brandon Garrett examines what went wrong in the cases of the first 250 wrongfully convicted people to be exonerated by DNA testing.
Based on trial transcripts, Garrett’s investigation into the causes of wrongful convictions reveals larger patterns of incompetence, abuse, and error. Evidence corrupted by suggestive eyewitness procedures, coercive interrogations, unsound and unreliable forensics, shoddy investigative practices, cognitive bias, and poor lawyering illustrates the weaknesses built into our current criminal justice system. Garrett proposes practical reforms that rely more on documented, recorded, and audited evidence, and less on fallible human memory.
Very few crimes committed in the United States involve biological evidence that can be tested using DNA. How many unjust convictions are there that we will never discover? Convicting the Innocent makes a powerful case for systemic reforms to improve the accuracy of all criminal cases.
Garrett's book is a gripping contribution to the literature of injustice, along with a galvanizing call for reform...It's the stories in his book that stick in the memory. One can only hope that they will mobilize a broad range of citizens, liberal and conservative, to demand legislative and judicial reforms ensuring that the innocent go free whether or not the constable has blundered.
— Jeffrey Rosen
Looking at the 250 people exonerated through DNA as of February 2010, Garrett aimed to determine how often...malignant factors had warped the criminal justice process at the expense of an innocent person (and to the benefit of an actual criminal who went unpursued). Garrett tracked down court transcripts and dug into case files. He then sliced, diced, sifted and collated the data. Some law professors would take a pass on this kind of grunt work. Garrett did not, and our justice system can be the better for it.
— Kevin Doyle
This book details some of the worst miscarriages of justice in U.S. history and describes how DNA evidence helped to right those wrongs...The book, what must be the most thorough treatment yet of wrongful convictions, is a first-rate examination of the human foibles and conflicts of interest hampering the pursuit of justice.
— A. C. Mobley
A uniquely valuable part of Garrett's book is a statistical appendix that provides a quantitative overview of the false convictions, their consequences, and the factors that contributed to them....It is hard to imagine seven pages more damaging to the claims of our system of criminal justice.
— Richard C. Lewontin
1 Introduction 1
2 Contaminated Confessions 14
3 Eyewitness Misidentifications 45
4 Flawed Forensics 84
5 Trial by Liar 118
6 Innocence on Trial 145
7 Judging Innocence 178
8 Exoneration 213
9 Reforming the Criminal Justice System 241