In 1974, at the young age of nineteen, James Bain was arrested for the kidnapping and rape of a nine-year old Florida boy. Despite his pleas of innocence, an alibi, and no hard evidence tying him to the crime, Bain was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. At the time, DNA testing was non-existent and the conviction was simply based on the little boy picking out his “attacker with the bushy sideburns and mustache.” While it was rumored that the little boy was more or less “directed” to Bain, he would spend another 35 years in prison before DNA testing would prove his innocence – making him the longest serving inmate based on a wrongful conviction.
Why are these mistakes happening and how do we prevent them from happening again? While some wrongful convictions can be attributed to the intentional falsifying of scientific results (misconduct), which not only discredits an entire laboratory but will ruin one’s career, a far more startling reason is the unintentional falsifying of scientific results.
When a violent homicide or sexual assault occurs, especially when involving a young child, the public will most always react with grief, outrage, and an immediate demand for justice. The public pressure is first felt on the detectives handling the case, as they know a speedy arrest will put the public at ease. Once a suspect is in custody, the responsibility then falls upon the scientists to link the suspect to the crime through the analysis of all evidence related to that crime.
Because most forensic scientists work in the public sector, they are often thought of as working for the prosecution side, when in all reality, they are simply there to find the truth with no bias as to whom the results will benefit (i.e. prosecution vs. defense). However, this team/group mentality, and the feeling of having to produce favorable scientific results, although unintended, seems to affect scientists on a much higher level.
Multiple studies have shown that even the most meticulous scientist can be affected by something known as cognitive bias. Cognitive bias can be used to “describe many observer effects in the human mind, some of which can lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, or illogical interpretation.” Some experts have even stated that something as simple as “merely knowing the details of a crime or discussing it with police or prosecutors beforehand can introduce significant bias to a lab technician’s analysis.” Other causes of wrongful convictions exist, such as eyewitness misidentification, false confessions/ incriminating statements, and snitches, which all can be attributed to a person’s mistake (in regards to misidentification) or their deliberate actions. However, it’s the invalidated and improper forensic science, possibly resulting from the cognitive bias, which has contributed to approximately 50 percent of the wrongful convictions [to date]. But how do we correct/change a behavior when even ones’ self is unaware of their own actions?
The Innocence Project (innocenceproject.org), which is a “national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice,” states that there has been 269 post-conviction exonerations in the United States, with 198 of them based on DNA testing. Out of the 198 post DNA exonerations, the true suspect(s) have been identified in 120 of those cases. While this number may seem small in comparison to the number of accurate convictions, it has still brought about big changes to the legal system.
While I believe the intentions of The Innocence Project are noble, how do we hold someone accountable for an unintentional mistake? We are raised to be able to forgive, but where do we draw the line? Despite never having to suffer through such an ordeal as having an innocent loved one sent to prison for years, I do feel they deserve some form of compensation. But how and who decides how much each year you spend in prison is worth monetary wise? How do you reimburse for lost years of a life – as time is not something that can be recovered? Florida, last year, passed a law that automatically grants former inmates found innocent $50,000 for each year they spent in prison. No legislative approval is needed. Many reform laws have been put into place in recent years as well, which are aimed at preventing wrongful convictions in the first place. Ohio is considered to have a “model reform law” in which the newly enacted law requires:
- Preservation of DNA evidence in all cases of serious crime, such as homicide and sexual assault
- Police incentives for the recording of all interrogations from beginning to end in cases of serious crime
- Police lineups and photo identification procedures to be conducted in double-blind fashion, meaning the officer who oversees the eyewitness procedure with the witness does not know who among the sample pool is the suspect
- An expansion of Ohio’s post-conviction DNA testing law to allow for DNA testing to be done during the parole phase of the justice cycle
Based on Florida’s law, James Bain is entitled to $1.75 million in compensation. But to me, thirty five years in prison is not worth a measly $1.75 million. With the creation and implementation of any additional reform laws, we can hopefully avoid such tragic circumstances in the future. For more information on wrongful convictions, visit www.innocenceproject.org.
Read our blog entry on a few exonerations in Illinois