Reckless Dinitz Lecture

What We Know and Don’t Know About False Convictions: Insight from Dr. Samuel Gross

by Annie Curie

Throughout the 2014-2015 school year, the Criminal Justice Research Center has hosted numerous presenters as part of its research seminar series, inviting scholars to discuss a variety of current, pressing issues.  Topics covered ranged from racialized democracy to genocide.  On April 17, 2015, the CJRC hosted its final event of the school year.  Dr. Samuel Gross, a highly esteemed researcher in the field of false criminal convictions, presented his work at the Barrister Club here at the Ohio State University. 

Currently the Thomas and Mabel Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, Gross dedicates much of his time to providing information for the National Registry for Exonerations, which is a joint project between the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University Law School.  In addition to this work, Dr. Gross has devoted much of his time to crafting various books and book chapters on a range of topics spanning from evidence and criminal procedures to convictions and racial profiling.

Gross emphasized the acceleration of the exoneration rate in recent years.  While it might seem as though this could be attributed to technological advancements in DNA evidence acquisition, such DNA-based exonerations are actually a comparatively small minority of exonerations.  As Dr. Gross illustrated, this DNA evidence has served to “capture the public imagination” and bring further attention to the issue of false convictions.  In 2014 alone, there were 128 exonerations (that we know of).  Most of these are not well known and get little to no attention.  However, there is a time lag to the discovery of exonerations, meaning there may be more exonerations than is currently known.  Since public attention began to focus on exonerations, there has been an increase in innocence projects, which are aimed at showing how many people have been falsely convicted.  Particularly interesting is the number of exonerations based on the types of crimes committed.  The exoneration rate for rape is seven and a half times the rate of exoneration for robbery, while the exoneration rate for death sentences is about seven times the exoneration rate for other murders.  This means the margin of error for people falsely imprisoned is pretty high. Although it is difficult to get exact numbers, Gross estimates that the criminal justice system actually misses about 60% of false convictions.

So, what leads to false convictions?  The vast majority of public attention has focused on high profile cases, such as rapes and murders, in which misidentification, official misconduct, and perjury are the most common causes of false convictions, yet little attention has been paid to false convictions in low-profile cases.  It is in these cases that pre-trial detention and plea bargaining contribute to false imprisonment.  But why would people plead guilty in a plea deal, only to be exonerated later, when they know they are innocent?  The answer comes down to pre-trial detention, which many people aim to avoid at all costs.  In order to avoid this detention, those accused of a crime will sometimes plead guilty to shorten their sentence, then have the charges lifted at a later date.  This seems to be especially true in drug cases.  The purpose of the National Registry of Exonerations is primarily to draw attention to these cases through facts and numbers.

After listening to Gross’ engaging presentation, I had the opportunity to interview him about his personal investments in the issue at hand.  When asked about his personal reasons for researching this topic, Gross cited a study he worked on in 1997, which examined misidentification cases and eyewitness mistakes.  He also began to engage the topic of false convictions in capital cases about twenty years ago.  Though his research has evolved over the years, Dr. Gross’ feelings on the death penalty have remained pretty constant. 

The staggering number of exonerations alone might be enough to convince many people that the death penalty is problematic, but Gross also cites how poor an investment the death penalty is.  If one looks at other countries and states without capital punishment, they do not have higher rates of violent crimes.  However, the costs to tax payers are higher for capital punishment than life in prison, due to the costly, slow, agonizing, and discriminatory capital prosecution.  Worse still, these capital trials divert resources from other trials.  These factors, combined with Gross’ research into false convictions, have perpetuated his belief that the death penalty is a failed institution of the American criminal justice system.  In addition to passionately pursuing his research interests, Samuel Gross enjoys exploring the outdoors, pouring through books and movies, spending time with his children, and traveling.  It was a true pleasure to finish this year’s lecture series at the Criminal Justice Research Center by listening to and meeting with Samuel Gross.