When law professor Brandon Garrett wrote Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, he hoped that his analysis of the first 250 wrongful convictions to be overturned by DNA testing would help to counter the criminal justice system’s vulnerability to patterns of error, abuse, and incompetence. The frequency with which Garrett and his work are cited in the press have suggested he’s been successful in focusing attention on the need for practical reform, but this month we’ve also seen clear indication of Garrett’s influence among those truly empowered to enact changes.
In a letter sent to nearly 250 police departments across the Commonwealth of Virginia, Albemarle County Sheriff J. E. “Chip” Harding urged his colleagues in criminal justice to join him in reading Garrett’s study and working towards reform. “I have spent most of my 40-year criminal justice career investigating serious crime,” wrote Harding. “I took hundreds of felony cases to state and federal courts. I never lost a single one. I thought I was a ‘cutting edge’ investigator, always doing it the right way. I now know I was wrong.”
The Sheriff went on to detail how work by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Innocence Project, law professor Jon Gould, and former Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro has convinced him of the need to adopt best practices intended not only to lessen the likelihood of wrongful conviction, but also to protect citizens from the actual perpetrators who remain free. Among these invaluable studies, it’s Garrett’s Convicting the Innocent to which Sheriff Harding recommends his colleagues first turn:
If you would like to know more about the research, I would recommend UVA Professor Brandon Garrett’s recently published book “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions go Wrong.” I have recently purchased a number of copies, at my own expense, to give to you and others that can affect change. If you will promise to read it, let me know, and I will gladly send you a copy.
Sheriff Harding closed by asking for support for the formation of a Justice Commission to review the available research and make recommendations for best practices in criminal justice. In a reference to the month’s dominant news story, he noted how a plane crash leads to investigations and reforms aimed at preventing a recurrence. “A wrongful conviction,” he wrote, “is our crashed plane.”