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Students visit D.C., Brooklyn for field research in Model seminar on conviction integrity

May 22, 2017

As part of Penn Law’s Model Government Service & Public Affairs Initiative, Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice Executive Director John Hollway taught a Policy Research Seminar this spring semester titled “A Systems Approach to Conviction Integrity,” which took a cross-disciplinary look at why the criminal justice system sometimes gets it wrong and how the system can be improved in the future.

The Model Initiative harnesses Penn Law’s resources to allow students and faculty to engage with some of the most pressing government and public policy issues of the day. The Policy Research Seminars are courses that examine social and political matters while offering students the opportunity to conduct field research.

In Hollway’s course, students came at the issue of conviction integrity from varying backgrounds. While the law students had an advocacy perspective from their legal education, the Penn criminology students examined the criminal justice system as a whole from the perspective of social scientists.

Over the length of the semester, the course examined the aspects of the criminal justice system, explained Hollway, as well as how the various stakeholders in the system — police, prosecutors, crime labs — influence each other. The class also spent time on the core factors can lead to erroneous convictions, including faulty eyewitness identifications, investigators coercing false confessions from defendants, and prosecutorial misconduct.

The seminar included two field research trips so that students could learn first-hand about the workings of the criminal justice system.

The first trip was to Washington, D.C., where the students met with the Director of the D.C. Department of Forensic Science, as well as the head of the department’s DNA Division. The visit was of particular note because Washington, D.C. recently made its forensics operations an independent agency, not housed under the auspices of the city’s police department.

The students also had the opportunity to meet with the Head of Forensics and Special Litigation at the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office, as well as a representative from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. The two lawyers discussed the importance of their cooperation to ensure that the criminal justice system functions as it should.

“Taking this class and visiting the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. opened my eyes to how these issues are multi-stakeholder,” said Leandra Joseph L’18, who had previously done research on wrongful conviction in the African-American community as an undergraduate. “You need input from the other side.”

“It’s important for all stakeholders to become involved to make the system as just as it can possibly be,” she added.

“I think the biggest thing the students saw on that day was how sincere the efforts are of all parts of the system to get the right result,” said Hollway. “There might be disagreements about the underlying facts, but there’s a tendency to think that wrongful convictions happen because people are consciously manipulating the cases in ways that are detrimental to the defendants. It’s always eye-opening for the students to hear prosecutors and people in crime labs talk about all of the steps they take to try to get it right.”

The second trip took students to the Red Hook Community Court in Brooklyn, New York. The court exists as an alternative to criminal court for those accused of misdemeanors and low-level non-violent felonies. The court is a pioneer in the area of procedural justice, said Hollway, which involves taking time with each defendant to make sure their concerns are being heard as well as addressing the underlying issues as to why the crimes were committed. Social workers are part of the court, judges are involved in discussions with the defendants, and conversations are encouraged between victims and perpetrators.

The court is an alternative to incarceration, and — the students saw — it has led to more productive outcomes and a reduction of crime in the community.

Devin Troy L’18 hopes to one day work in a district attorney’s office after she completes law school, and what she learned in the course is helping her make sure that she will engage in best practices as a prosecutor.

“If you’re going to work in this field, it’s really important to know that you can’t just trust yourself to not be the ‘bad guy’ — to not be the one who is going to purposefully hide evidence from the defense,” she said. “That’s the easy part, but it’s a lot more than that. You need to be educated on what the current research and social science is saying so that you don’t inadvertently cause someone to be facing charges that they shouldn’t be facing.”