Abstract: A sentinel event review (SER) is a system‐based, multistakeholder review of an organizational error. The goal of an SER is to prevent similar errors from recurring in the future rather than identifying and punishing the responsible parties. In this article, we provide a detailed description of one of the first SERs conducted in an American police department—the review of the Lex Street Massacre investigation and prosecution, which resulted in the wrongful incarceration of four innocent men for 18 months. The results of the review suggest that SERs may help identify new systemic reforms for participating police departments and other criminal justice agencies.
Police departments and other criminal justice agencies should begin implementing SERs to review a wide range of organizational errors and “near misses.” We offer guiding principles about the kinds of errors that may be more or less susceptible to fruitful review. Congress, state legislatures, and municipalities should also enact policies—such as safe harbor provisions—to encourage agencies to conduct SERs.
Objectives: Estimate the frequency of self-reported factual innocence in non-capital cases within a state population of prisoners.
Mehods: We conducted a survey of a population sample of state prisoners who were asked to anonymously report their involvement in the crimes for which they were most recently convicted. To assess the validity of verifiable responses, prisoner self-report data were compared to aggregate conviction and demographic information derived from administrative records. To assess the validity of unverifiable responses, we developed a non-parametric test to estimate the probability of false innocence claims.
Results: We estimate that wrongful convictions occur in 6% of criminal convictions leading to imprisonment in an intake population of state prisoners. This estimate masks a considerable degree of conviction-specific variability ranging from a low of 2% in DUI convictions to a high of 40% in rape convictions. Implausible or false innocence claims are estimated to occur in 2% of cases.
Conclusions: The present investigation demonstrates that survey methods can provide bounded estimates of factual innocence claims within a discrete and known population. The resulting estimates, the first to formally separate claims of legal and factual innocence and to incorporate a formal measure of response plausibility, suggest that prisoners themselves are very often willing to self-report the correctness of their convictions. At the same time, a considerable minority indicate that procedural weaknesses with the administration of justice occurred in their cases. And, a distinct minority, with considerable offense variation, maintain that they are completely innocent of the charges against them.
This Stanford Law Review article by Quattrone Center researchers Paul Heaton, Sandra Mayson, and Megan Stevenson offers a first-of-its-kind empirical analysis of misdemeanor pretrial detention.
Abstract: In misdemeanor cases, pretrial detention poses a particular problem because it may induce otherwise innocent defendants to plead guilty in order to exit jail, potentially creating widespread error in case adjudication. While practitioners have long recognized this possibility, empirical evidence on the downstream impacts of pretrial detention on misdemeanor defendants and their cases remains limited. This Article uses detailed data on hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor cases resolved in Harris County, Texas—the third largest county in the U.S.—to measure the effects of pretrial detention on case outcomes and future crime. We find that detained defendants are 25% more likely than similarly situated releasees to plead guilty, 43% more likely to be sentenced to jail, and receive jail sentences that are more than twice as long on average. Furthermore, those detained pretrial are more likely to commit future crime, suggesting that detention may have a criminogenic effect. These differences persist even after fully controlling for the initial bail amount as well as detailed offense, demographic, and criminal history characteristics. Use of more limited sets of controls, as in prior research, overstates the adverse impacts of detention. A quasi-experimental analysis based upon case timing confirms that these differences likely reflect the casual effect of detention. These results raise important constitutional questions, and suggest that Harris County could save millions of dollars a year, increase public safety, and reduce wrongful convictions with better pretrial release policy.
Summary of Key Findings
This paper, co-authored by Quattrone Research Fellow Amanda Bergold and published in the Journal of Forensic Psychology Research and Practice, evaluates the effects of reforms designed to improve juror assessment of eyewitness identification, a leading cause of error in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Abstract: Mistaken eyewitness identifications are a leading cause of wrongful convictions. Even with procedural safeguards (e.g. attorney argument, cross examination of witnesses) in place, jurors still have difficulty evaluating the reliability of eyewitness identifications. The purpose of the current study was to test the New Jersey Supreme Court’s assumptions that recently implemented research-based case-specific jury instructions sensitize jurors to unreliable eyewitness testimony. Four hundred sixty-eight jury-eligible adults watched a trial simulation in which estimator variables, system variables, and jury instruction were manipulated, and subsequently rendered a verdict. The Henderson instructions influenced mock jurors’ perceptions of the eyewitness identification, but these perceptions did not translate to their verdict decisions. Rather than sensitizing jurors, the instructions induced an overall skepticism of eyewitness identification. Taken together, results indicate that the current Henderson instructions should be modified to improve juror sensitivity to various witnessing and identification conditions.
Link to published version