Nathaniel E. Epps and Percell F. Warren loudly protested their innocence when they were convicted of raping and beating a woman in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1996. Two decades later, DNA testing has just proven conclusively that they could not have been the perpetrators, but the truth is confirmed too late for Warren who died of cancer in 2012 – while still incarcerated for crimes he did not commit.
Tunnel vision is the result of our mind narrowing its focus to a limited range of possibilities so that alternatives are not considered. Whilst this may be acceptable, or mildly inconvenient, in many areas of life, it has disastrous effects in the criminal justice system. When not checked it leads investigators, prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers to focus on a particular conclusion, while eliminating from the investigation any alternative suspects or theories, and even any contradictory evidence.
If ever there was a textbook case to demonstrate the dazzling array of unacceptable problems with our criminal justice system, it is the case of Sandeep “Sonny” Bharadia. Eyewitness misidentification, law enforcement incompetence, perjured testimony and bad lawyering all played a part in sending this obviously innocent man to prison for life without the possibility of parole. And in spite of recent DNA evidence that would surely exonerate him, he has been denied a new trial on the basis of a loophole in Georgia state law.
No-one should be under the illusion that the average jailhouse snitch is a “noble whistleblower”, only interested in seeing that justice is properly served. There is now a mountain of evidence that many informants lie under oath. In some cases, the motivation may be money, in many more it is the reduction of prison time or other favors; false testimony is often a last resort by a desperate inmate.
In a new editorial series, Justice IQ will attempt to overturn decades of the conventional wisdom surrounding the vaunted constitutional right to a trial in which one is judged by a jury of his peers. The assertion that the jury trial paradigm is inherently compromised is an extremely uncomfortable notion. After all, the jury trial is supposed to epitomize the values of impartiality and equality in the context of the justice system, and a healthy properly functioning criminal justice system is the cornerstone of every democracy.
Empirical evidence is completely absent from any discussion about juror psychology, and what little of it does exist is used more as tradecraft for lawyers seeking to manipulate trial verdicts than data for those interested in improving the fact-finding process itself.
On Wednesday April 6 of this year, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring made the announcement that a man previously convicted of rape and murder was innocent. The man, Keith Harward, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Jesse Perron, and the rape of Perron’s wife.