Few criminals are apprehended red-handed. Instead, someone is brought to dock after an investigative process that creates a case from circumstantial evidence, where each evidentiary tidbit is probabilistic at best, and thereby problematic overall. Most criminal cases hinge on a few pieces of evidence, often only a solitary scrap around which a story is spun by police and prosecutors hell-bent on getting a conviction. The more heinous the crime, the more determined the state is to make someone pay – anyone.
Eyewitnesses are commonly considered reliable, but that is seldom the case. Part of the reason is that the event witnessed was stressful – a time when memory is especially fallible.
Eyewitness identifications are highly unreliable, especially where the witness and the perpetrator are of different races. ~ Alex Kozinski
Mistaken eyewitness testimony figures in over 1/3rd of wrongful convictions. Yet most American criminal courts won’t let defendants question the reliability of witnesses or instruct juries to be skeptical of eyewitness testimony.
Fingerprints and other forensic evidence are not nearly as reliable as commonly construed, including DNA evidence, which is easily contaminated. Faulty forensics is estimated to account for almost half of all wrongful convictions. Crime labs around the country are known to be sloppy, with fraud aplenty. Such shoddiness is not in the past – it is ongoing.
The absence of oversight in forensic science is alarming. ~ American criminologist Jessica Henry
The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a 2-decade period before 2000. ~ American investigative journalist Spencer Hsu
In 2004, the FBI announced it had “a 100% match” on a fingerprint in a terrorist bombing in Madrid, Spain. The FBI conceded its error only after Spanish investigators linked the print to someone else.
Other fields of forensic expertise, long accepted by the courts as largely infallible, such as bloodstain pattern identification, foot and tire print identification and ballistics have been the subject of considerable doubt. Some fields of forensic expertise are built on nothing but guesswork and false common sense. ~ Alex Kozinski
Even confessions can’t be counted on. Someone sufficiently stressed will admit anything to gain relief. The harsh interrogation tactics police use to elicit statements which will be taken for a confession even when they are not.
Innocent people do confess with surprising regularity. ~ Alex Kozinski
Police falsify or plant evidence as a regular practice. They also conceal evidence which indicates innocence, as do prosecutors as a matter of course. All the way around, crime is a crooked business in the US.
There are countless documented cases where innocent people have spent decades behind bars because the police manipulated or concealed evidence. There are countless ways in which prosecutors can prejudice the fact-finding process and undermine a defendant’s right to a fair trial. ~ Alex Kozinski