Skip navigation links

April 21, 2014

Supreme Court should help stop wrongful convictions

The U.S. Supreme Court should do more to prevent wrongful criminal convictions, a Michigan State University scholar argues in a paper.

The majority conservative court “bears at least partial responsibility for many injustices” resulting from its rulings that increase the likelihood innocent people will be left languishing in prison, said Christopher E. Smith, professor of criminal justice.

In the most well known case, from June 2009, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing that might prove their innocence. The ruling concerned a criminal case in Alaska, which had no DNA testing law at the time. The court’s five conservative members, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, often vote together in such matters of judicial intervention in erroneous trial outcomes.

Smith, who has a law degree, notes that the 300th innocent person was freed from prison through DNA testing in 2012, indicating the problem of wrongful convictions is more acute than people realized. Error rates for some crimes are estimated to be as high as 15 percent.

“It’s striking to me that there are ways the Supreme Court could, and should, make a greater contribution to prevent what seems to be the worst thing the justice system can do in the United States, which is to have someone be erroneously convicted,” Smith said.

The issue of wrongful convictions goes beyond DNA testing. The Supreme Court erased a $14 million judgment to a prisoner convicted of robbery and murder who had sued the prosecutor after a junior member in the prosecutor’s office admitted to withholding crime lab test results and removing a blood sample from the evidence room. Although the prisoner was acquitted following a new trial – after spending 14 of his 18 years in prison on death row – his conviction was a result of prosecutorial misconduct, Smith said.

“I understand why we don’t want to let people sue prosecutors all the time and bog them down with litigation,” Smith said. “But when there is intentional misconduct, like stealing and hiding evidence from the defense which would show innocence, then it seems immunity in that situation is a complete disservice to our values, a complete disservice to the justice system itself.”

The high court has also ruled against a defendant on a federal marijuana charge because his lawyer filed a motion for acquittal one day after a seven-day time limit, putting behind bars a man whose guilt was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Is slavish adherence to a filing deadline really more important than keeping an innocent person from being sent to prison?” Smith writes in the paper, which appears in the Public Law Review of the St. Louis University School of Law.

Of the five conservative justices, Antonin Scalia is the most outspoken opponent of a person’s constitutional right to be free from punishment merely because the defendant is actually innocent, Smith said.

“Justice Scalia has been quite clear in his belief that you don’t have the right to be free from going to prison or even being executed just because you didn’t do the crime,” Smith said. “He would say you have the right to a fair trial and you have the right to an attorney. If you have those and a mistake is made, too bad, we move on. And that is troubling when you consider the extent of the problem of erroneous convictions.”