Ideas for Reform

August 1, 2002

Some of the best legal minds in the country have been developing reform proposals to help plug the holes in the system. Among the suggested changes in procedure to prevent wrongful convictions:

Modify eyewitness identification process. Using sequential photo identifications where a witness looks at one photo at a time instead of groups of photos or the standard police line-up where the implicit request is that the witness must surely pick someone from the group as the alleged perpetrator.

Videotape interrogations and confessions. Providing an objective witness (the camera) to definitively record the suspect's precise answers and to discourage coercive interrogations on the part of law-enforcement officials.

Establish minimum standards for defense attorneys. Leveling the playing field between prosecutors and court-appointed attorneys by creating a more pervasive public-defender system that is regularly audited and held accountable.

Ban testimony of informants rewarded by favorable treatment. Eliminating the "jailhouse snitch" from the equation would have prevented a number of cases that have been recently overturned.

Lower barriers to DNA testing. Providing a means for indigent defendants and those already convicted to obtain tests without extra litigation or prohibitive expense.

Eliminate "junk science." Suspending the use of microscopic hair analysis, handwriting analysis, fiber analysis--techniques that DNA testing has proven to be highly flawed. Also improving lab standards and the training of the forensic analysts who work in them.

Establish innocence commissions to review cases. Developing systematized procedures for review of what went wrong and to propose reforms. Only Illinois has adopted this notion; it is standard practice in Canada and the U.K.

Even if all the reforms listed above were implemented, some critics suggest that the system still leaves too high a probability of human error, incompetence, or unfairness. For these reform advocates, nothing short of a total elimination of the death penalty will create a system that can offer something that approaches true justice and avoids the execution of the innocent.