Introducing Online Symposium on Brandon Garrett’s Convicting the Innocent
This week, we will be hosting an online symposium on Brandon Garrett’s Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong (Harvard University Press 2011) (just released in paperback). Garrett’s book exposes the “nightmarish reality” of systemic flaws in our justice system that result in wrongful convictions. Those flaws include false and coerced confessions, troubling eyewitness procedures, invalid forensic testimony, corrupt statements by jailhouse informers, and the judiciary’s overweening procedural focus and blind eye to actual factual innocence. Garrett demonstrates that “[w]hat makes the trials of exonerees so frightening is that they show how the case against an innocent person may not seem weak. The case may seem uncannily strong.” In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Professor Jeffrey Rosen described Convicting the Innocent a “gripping contribution to the literature of injustice, along with a galvanizing call for reform.”
In reading Garrett’s book, it was hard for me to shake my own memories of the Central Park Jogger trial in 1990-91. I was a trial preparation assistant at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for the bureau next to the one in charge of prosecuting the case. In the mornings when delivering files to the various courtrooms, we’d witness the march to the courthouse: prosecutor Liz Lederer’s team, the defendants’ family members, their lawyers, activist Al Sharpton, and Bill Tatum, editor of the New York Amsterdam News. Public conversation was divisive. The mainstream media cast the defendants as a “wilding” mob of black teenagers who descended on the petite white jogger; the Amsterdam News decried the arrest and prosecution as racial injustice. Even though forensic evidence exonerated the defendants (the FBI lab conclusively ruled out the semen found on the victim’s sock did not belong to any of the defendants), the jury convicted them. The justice system failed us: we convicted the innocent. Ken Burns and Sarah Burns’ film The Central Park Five is an important documentary companion to Garrett’s important work on our flawed system of justice.
Along with Garrett’s book, we will be discussing three new books that intersect well with the problems he tackles in Convicting the Innocent: Stephanos Bibas’s The Machinery of Criminal Justice (Oxford University Press 2012), Daniel S. Medwed’s Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and its Impact on the Innocent (New York University Press 2012), and Dan Simon’s In Doubt (Harvard University Press 2012).
To discuss the books, we will be joined by an exciting group of scholars: