By Marissa Boyers Bluestine
The Philadelphia Inquirer ran the following opinion piece, written by Pennsylvania Innocence Project Legal Director Marissa Bluestine:
Last week, the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office withdrew murder charges against a man it determined to be innocent.
Tahmir Craig was charged with the Memorial Day killing of Devon Williams after several witnesses identified him as the man seen in a surveillance photo. Craig maintained his innocence, saying he was with his family at the time of the murder. This story could have easily ended in a conviction and life sentence for Craig. But District Attorney Jack Whelan, after prodding from Craig’s family and attorney, continued his investigation. An FBI analysis of the surveillance photos determined that Craig was innocent: The shooter stood about six inches taller than Craig. Responding quickly, Whelan dropped all charges against Craig and he was released from prison. The case remains under investigation, as police try to identify the murderer still on the loose.
Tahmir Craig had luck – both bad and good. Bad in being arrested for a crime another committed, but good in that police and prosecutors engaged in good law-enforcement work. They did not let Craig’s arrest serve as the end of the investigation. A manifest injustice was averted, and an innocent man freed. This is what we might call a “near miss.”
Social scientists have started to study these “near misses” and compare them with cases in which innocent people were wrongly convicted. The difference between the two is often continued investigation.
For example, once police get a confession from a suspect, they may not investigate further, believing strongly they have the right person. Or a forensic technician may determine that a fingerprint at the scene matches the suspect only after learning that the suspect confessed. Having that confession, and believing the suspect guilty, they view all information through that lens. It’s called “confirmatory bias,” and it’s how people make sense of multiple streams of data.
The key in law enforcement is to help police overcome this inherent bias and view evidence objectively. For example, forensic scientists should be shielded from unnecessary information – like a confession or eyewitness identification – before making comparisons against a given target. Police should be encouraged to continue investigating even after a confession or strong eyewitness identification.
As law-enforcement agencies grapple with the troubling fact that our justice systems sometimes ensnare innocent individuals, police and prosecutors are looking for ways to prevent these tragedies.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, for example, has been quietly overhauling the charging unit. Rather than accept cases for charging that depend on shaky, weak, or even questionable evidence, the experienced attorneys who decide whether charges should be approved insist on more. Prosecutors are working closely with police detectives, requiring more evidence, corroborative information, and confirming tests.
No one wants the wrong person arrested and convicted. Not the victim of the crime, not the prosecutor, and certainly not the police. But, many times, innocent people have been arrested and convicted when the true perpetrator’s identity was just an interview or forensic test away. The benefits of digging deeper are obvious: A strong case gets stronger, or information comes to light that shows the suspect to be innocent. Justice is served either way.