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More Exoneration Inflation

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A project at UC Berkeley called the California Wrongful Convictions Project has a press release, not on its website as of this writing, claiming that California leads the country in wrongful convictions.

Given that California has by far the largest population, half again as large as number two Texas, the state "leads the nation" on just about any social statistic one cares to measure if the measurement is in raw numbers and not per capita.

On the specific question at issue in this release, the first question we should ask is whether these "wrongful convictions" or "exonerations" represent convictions of crimes that the defendant actually did not commit.  As with the notorious, discredited death row exoneration list, there is no requirement of actual innocence to get on the list.  Here are the criteria, from the Project's website:

To be included in the study, a case must (1) originate in a California state or federal court, (2) result in a conviction, (3) be reversed, overturned of dismissed on all counts by trial court, appellate court, or a federal court after January 1, 1989, (4) result in either full acquittal or dismissal on remand.
Innocence is not required.  Proof of innocence is not required.  Evidence of innocence is not required.  All that is required is that the proof of guilt remaining available and admissible at the time of retrial is not sufficient to convince a jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  Either a prosecutor decides the remaining evidence is insufficient and dismisses the case, or a jury decides the evidence is insufficient and returns an acquittal.

Our system is intentionally skewed in the defendant's favor, knowing full well that sometimes charges against guilty people will be dismissed, and sometimes guilty people who go to trial will be acquitted.  Exhibit A:  O.J. Simpson.  When such a result occurs on a retrial, that does not mean that the first conviction was "wrongful" in the sense of convicting an innocent person.  That is sometimes the case, but very often not.  See, e.g., the Timothy Hennis case.

Update:  The California District Attorneys' Association has issued a press release in response.  It is copied after the jump.

 

 

OFFICERS

 

President

Carl V. adams

Sutter County

 

First Vice President

DEAN D. FLIPPO

Monterey County

 

Second Vice President

GILBERT G. OTERO

Imperial County

 

Secretary-Treasurer

PATRICK McGRATH

Yuba County

 

Sergeant-At-Arms

STEPHEN M. WAGSTAFFE

San Mateo County

 

Past President

Gregory d. totten

Ventura County

 

BOARD OF DIRECTORS

 

LEE CARTER

Santa Barbara County

 

DANIELLE DOUGLAS

Contra Costa County

 

JOYCE DUDLEY

Santa Barbara County

 

KEVIN DUNLEAVY

Alameda County

 

MICHAEL FRAWLEY

Ventura County

 

LARRY D. MORSE II

Merced County

 

NANCY O'MALLEY

Alameda County

 

CAMERON PAGE

San Bernardino County

 

VERNON R. PIERSON

El Dorado County

 

ANNE MARIE SCHUBERT

Sacramento County

 

CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER

W. SCOTT THORPE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                      CONTACT:  Cory Salzillo

Thursday, October 25, 2012                                             Office:           (916) 443-2017

                                                                                             Cell:              (916) 213-0495

 

Prosecutors Condemn "Wrongful Convictions" Statement

 

(Sacramento, Calif.) - Sutter County District Attorney and California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) President Carl V. Adams condemned a press release issued yesterday by representatives of the California Wrongful Convictions Project announcing preliminary data relative to wrongful convictions in the state of California.  This press statement claims that California leads the nation in wrongful convictions and yet provides no meaningful context or appropriate criteria by which to measure such an assertion and freely admits that the completed report will not be released until next year.  "Issuing a press release in late October to announce that a report will be published next year is a cheap political vehicle to try to influence the upcoming election," said Adams. 

 

The press statement asserts that since 1989, the project has uncovered 214 cases in which courts have exonerated the defendant or dismissed convictions.  It is worth noting here that in this same time period, there have been approximately five million adult felony convictions in California, a point the press release fails to acknowledge.  To arrive at their number, according to their own press statement, researchers included cases involving "official misconduct, insufficient evidence, findings of innocence, ineffective defense, and legal error." 

 

"The problem with this methodology," said Adams, "is that only the 'findings of innocence' can reasonably be called 'exonerations.'  In the other cases, while convictions may have been overturned or dismissed, one cannot assume that the defendant was factually innocent of the offense.  Having an incompetent defense attorney does not alter whether or not a person committed a crime."

 

Prosecutors further criticized the fact that raw numbers of so-called wrongful convictions from several states were provided instead of a comparison of those data to each state's population.  Although the project claims that California "leads the nation in exonerations as defined by the National Registry of Exonerations," it makes no mention of the fact that California's population greatly exceeds the populations of the other three states (Illinois, Texas, and New York).

 

"When compared, more meaningfully, to overall population, California's rate of 'wrongful convictions' (3.2 per one million population) is the lowest of the states mentioned," said Adams.  "Based on the data provided in the press release and 2011 United States Census statistics, the rate in Texas is 3.9 per one million population, New York's rate is 5.1 per one million population, and Illinois's figure is 8.6 per one million population."

 

"Yesterday's press statement by the leaders of this project of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law is irresponsible and misleading," said Adams.  "Their own press release notes that the project will not be released until 2013, and yet they chose to publicize these preliminary data now.  I do not believe for one moment that this statement being issued less than two weeks before Californians decide whether to retain the death penalty, and in the midst of the proponents' campaign making wild and inaccurate claims about the frequency of persons being wrongfully placed on death row is pure happenstance.  The press release is without context because the report will not be issued until next year and the data have been gravely mischaracterized."

 

"District attorneys are relentless in their pursuit of justice and ensuring that no person is wrongfully convicted is at the top of every prosecutor's mind," concluded Adams.  "That said, the fear-mongering taking place in this situation tells only a tiny part of a story that ends with prosecutors protecting California citizens from dangerous criminals and defending the public's ability to rely on the fairness of our justice system."

 

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6 Comments

You'd think this point is obvious, but in my conversations with so many people it isn't. It gets exhausting telling people time and time again that these various studies are biased in obvious ways.

I'm still waiting for some university or think tank to create a "Convictions of Defendants Who Actually Didn't Do It Project." However, since that would be a no-BS title, I have a feeling I'll be waiting a long time.

"Wrongful" convictions could mean anything, but is designed, with typical abolitionist deceit, to imply that the convicted defendant didn't really do it.

P.S. Could someone please tell me when Berkeley is going to start its Wrongful Acquittals Project?

That's an interesting question. How would you define a "wrongful acquittal"?

When an adult of sound mind who committed the charged act with criminal intent gets acquitted, that is a wrongful acquittal.

This is nothing more than the concept that factual guilt should equal legal guilt and vise versa.

Examples: OJ, Casey Anthony

The concept that factual guilt should equal legal guilt is pretty incontrovertible. Is a "wrongful acquittal" then another way of saying that the state has failed to satisfy its burden of proving guilt to an objective trier of fact beyond a reasonable doubt despite our personal belief that the defendant is guilty? We arrested and tried the right person but didn't convict?

Sometimes the trier of fact is not objective. Sometimes the trier of fact does not have all the evidence. When errors run against the defendant, the judgment can be reversed on appeal. When errors produce an erroneous judgment in the defendant's favor, there is no remedy.

Erroneous acquittals with no remedy is a price society has decided to pay for the protection from double jeopardy, but they are erroneous nonetheless.

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