Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

Surviving Justice

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, edited by Lola Vollen and Dave Eggers, collects the experiences, in their own words, of thirteen innocent people who were convicted of major crimes and eventually exonerated. These exonerees are diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and circumstances. As the editors write in the introduction, "Wrongful conviction can and does happen to virtually anyone."

Thanks to the Innocence Project and other organizations devoted to freeing the wrongly convicted, the general public has begun to realize that the court system makes mistakes. What is startling in the magnitude of the problem. There are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States. The editors note that if 99.5% of convictions are correct, and only 0.5% are wrongful, that would still mean that 11,000 innocent people are now in jail.

In fact, the pathologies in the court system make it almost certain that the exonerated are just the tip of the iceberg. System pathologies include faulty identifications by witnesses, coerced false confessions, ineffective counsel, and prosecutorial misconduct that includes false testimony, misleading expert witnesses, and "bad science" ranging from discredited forensic techniques to corruption and incompetence in crime labs. The accounts in Surviving Justice illustrate all these issues.

Christopher Ochoa, imprisoned twelve years for murder and rape, was threatened by police into making a false confession. He was freed by DNA evidence, with the assistance of the University of Wisconsin's Wisconsin Innocence Project, in 2001. It turned out that the actual killer had confessed to authorities in 1996.

Beverly Monroe, imprisoned seven years for murder, was railroaded by an "overzealous" police detective who did not accept a medical examiner's report on a suicide. Monroe was targeted although she was not present at the time of the suicide. At trial, the prosecution presented false testimony from a criminal (unknown to Monroe) who received a sentence reduction in exchange for testimony. It took a federal judge to vacate Monroe's conviction.

Gary Gauger, imprisoned three years for murder, says in Surviving Justice, "People don't understand how false confessions can take place. After I was found guilty, my attorney asked the jury foreman, how could you convict a man when there was no physical evidence? And the jury foreman said, 'We just couldn't understand why somebody would confess unless they did it.' Well, I never even actually confessed, so that tells me they couldn't even consider that the police could be lying."

The justice system does not seem willing or even able to reform itself. We the public need to become informed and to demand reforms that will make the system more honest, more fair, and more open to scrutiny.

Copyright © 2006 by Heidi Boudro