Thursday, December 14, 2006

Rosenhan revisited: The persistence of error and the impotence of facts

Two items that provide a follow-up to the Rosenhan post.

First, there is this point made by Patterico in 2004 about appeals courts and their ability to correct injustices.

The system doesn’t work. Innocents who have been released from Death Row have almost never gained their freedom through the orderly workings of the system. In many cases, the defendant’s innocence has been established due to the efforts of activists who have no official role in the criminal justice system. The fact that innocents have left Death Row is no tribute to the criminal justice system.
That’s a sobering statement coming from a big city prosecutor.

Second, Court TV recently illustrated how journalists and the popular media can disseminate a fallacious initial narrative long after new information destroys the factual underpinnings of that narrative. It was a wonderful example of how difficult it is for journalists and investigators to revise their conclusions even in the face of powerful new evidence.

As part of their “Murder by the Book” series, Court TV covered the 1979 murder of Susan Reinert. The case was the made famous in Joseph Wambough’s best seller Echoes in the Darkness which became a prime time mini-series. The general thrust of the Court TV program followed Wambaugh’s narrative and the prosecution’s case in the criminal trial: teacher William Bradfield and principal Jay C. Smith conspired to kill Susan Reinert and her two children so that Bradfield could collect $750,000 in life insurance.

The program did note that Jay Smith was later released from Death Row by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Author Lisa Scottoline (the featured commentator) made it clear that this decision was one more example of guilty men getting off because of “legal technicalities”. That is, the police got the right man, but a clever lawyer helped him escape justice.

The program left out much of the newer information that has come to light since the trial. For example, the police hid exculpatory evidence, planted incriminating evidence, and lied about the deal given to their star witness (a jail house snitch). Moreover, several investigators accepted large sums of money from Wambaugh while the investigation was on-going and his book was unwritten and without a satisfying ending.

The lead prosecutor (who did not appear on the Court TV program) later went to jail on drug charges but only after he turned in many of his friends, colleagues, and lovers. Finally, the Pa. Supreme Court found that much of the Commonwealth’s case at trial consisted of inadmissible hearsay by self-interested witnesses who were given immunity early on in the investigation.

In short, it is grossly unfair and intellectually dishonest to say that Jay Smith was freed on a legal technicality. A more accurate assessment is that Jay Smith was sent to Death Row because over-zealous investigators were so eager for “closure” that they cut corners, ignored important evidence, and trusted that emotion and hysteria would smother the jurors’s nagging doubts. After all, two children were dead; someone had to pay. They also knew that the right kind of closure would make them famous.

Smith’s attorney wrote a book on the case after he won the landmark decision that freed his client. It lacks the novelistic flashes of Echoes in the Darkness, but it lays out the manifold problems with the investigation and prosecution. Costopoulos was interviewed for the documentary, but the producers studiously ignored the evidence he had assembled in both his appellate briefs and his book.

Once again we see that the desire for ratings and the need for a good story simply overpower critical thought and diligent research. Thus is error propagated and multiplied. By dismissing inconvenient evidence as “legal technicalities” Court TV closed its eyes to the problem of wrongful conviction. Like John Ford’s newspaperman in “The Man who shot Liberty Valence”, they decided it was easier to go with the legend.

See also:
Atticus Finch doesn't work here

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