“Ours is the worst system in the world, except for all the others.”



These words came from one of the captivating speakers at a seminar about exoneration of the wrongly convicted ring true.

“Ours is the worst system in the world, except for all the others.”

These words came from one of the captivating speakers at a seminar about exoneration of the wrongly convicted ring true.

Because we do live in a nation where the fundamental rights of individuals are paramount, where every individual serving a prison sentence either plead guilty or was found guilty by a jury of ordinary citizens.

These fundamental rights include the right to receive all favorable evidence in advance of the trial, to confront and cross examine all witnesses, and to be represented by counsel throughout all proceedings, including appointed legal counsel at no charge if the defendant can’t afford one.

The profound sense of fairness, wisdom and enlightenment of our nation’s forefathers who crafted the framework for this system was remarkable, making us unique among all nations.

Still we know, despite all the safeguards and procedures in place designed for fundamental fairness in the administration of criminal justice, our system is not perfect, nor will it, nor any other system in the world, ever be.

The outstanding work of the non-profit Innocence Project has confirmed this in recent years.

Founded in 1992 at the Yeshiva University School of Law, the Innocence Project has a full time staff, plus relies on the work of students at the school.

Mostly through the use of DNA evidence, which has become a significant tool in the criminal law in recent years, the Innocence Project has brought about the exoneration of more than 300 individuals wrongly convicted and imprisoned for serious crimes in America.

These cases have provided insights into the primary causes of wrongful convictions.

Tops on the list is eyewitness misidentification.

It goes without saying that when the prosecutor asks the witness on the stand in court: “Is that man in the courtroom today?” The answer is going to be “yes.”

Next is: “Please point him out to the jury for us.” Even for an event that happened a number of months ago, where the witness may have seen the perpetrator only briefly, and hasn’t seen him in the months since, there is never a doubt that the witness in the courtroom is going to point to the defendant with all of the certainty and conviction of God himself.

DNA evidence has revealed that such evidence, while always powerful, has been proven unreliable again and again.

Another common factor in wrongful convictions is junk science, often-times couples with corrupt or incompetent “experts,” and zealous prosecutors who may be willing to seek a conviction with such evidence that, while powerful to a jury, lacks legitimacy.

Common junk science evidence has included hair follicle analysis, dog sniffing evidence, bite mark analysis, and other such evidence that may never pass recognized scientific muster, but is allowed in court and is persuasive to the uninitiated, even though lacking in legitimate probative value.

Informant, or “snitch,” testimony is another.

Jails and pretrial detention facilities are teaming with informants who are always happy to report and testify to false jailhouse confessions of their fellow inmates to secure leniency for themselves.

Finally, and quite surprisingly perhaps, in about 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants were convicted after making false admissions or confessions.

“How can this be?” one may ask.

For someone who has never endured hours of intensive and intimidating police interrogation, the thought that anyone would admit to a heinous crime they did not commit seems implausible.

However, for an insight into the known phenomenon of false confessions under police interrogation, go to www.freeryanferguson.com, and view the 10-minute video of excerpts of the actual police interrogation that led to two convictions in that case. The video can be found under the menu entitled “the case.” You may find it enlightening.

And so while our best and fairest criminal justice system on planet Earth -- and it is -- is not without its problems, the people at the Innocence Project are doing outstanding work at correcting injustice, and making it just a little bit better.



Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at krgarten@yahoo.com