More prosecutors these days are starting to admit that innocent people sometimes go to prison.
Or at least that's the observation of Samuel R. Gross, who is the Thomas and Mabel Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and a graduate of Columbia College in 1968.
As discussed in a blog post here on Wednesday, Gross is the editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.
The registry, which went into business in May, maintains a detailed online database of all known exonerations in the United States since 1989. It recently posted its 1,000th case. The rate of adding new cases could be faster, but "finding and researching and writing up these cases is a fair amount of work" and the registry has only two staff people.
"The main purpose of putting it together and making this information available was to learn more about wrongful convictions," Gross said.
By examining what happened in those cases, we can learn more about "these terrible errors that send innocent people to prison. ... We may learn about types of issues that we didn't know about before."
The registry expects to issue another report in four or five months that may cast more light on how wrongful convictions happen.
A sign more prosecutors are willing to admit errors can occur is the growing number of conviction integrity units around the country, Gross said. Those units re-examine cases to ensure that people who were convicted were not in fact innocent.
"What we are seeing is that many prosecutors, not all, but more than in the past, are now sensitive to the fact that errors do occur," Gross said.
Among the reasons that errors can occur is that prosecutors' offices tend to be underfunded, leaving them without enough time for every case, he said.
"Prosecutors have a unique role," Gross said. "They are advocates whose job includes taking an adversarial role, vis a vis the defendant, and if, they have a strong case, getting the defendant's conviction. On the other hand, they are also ministers of justice. They also have an obligation to society as a whole to make sure that justice is done to prosecute people who are guilty and not people who are innocent, and to make sure they do their best to secure substantive justice as opposed to just getting victories."
So the registry could actually help prosecutors learn how to do their jobs better.
"The goal remains learning how we make mistakes," Gross said.
Read the July 25, 2012, report by Gross and Michael Shaffer "Exonerations in the United States, 1989-2012" here.
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