One summer a few years back, my sister and I met some new people at the beach. One of our newfound friends mistook her for me. Our similar features occasionally make it difficult for those who don’t know us to tell us apart. Unfortunately, mistaken identity is not always something you can fix with a laugh and a friendly reminder. To some, it means the difference between a life-altering accusation and the truth, existing as the number-one cause of wrongful criminal convictions.
Behaviors such as neglecting to pursue alternative suspects and not being provided with efficient counsel play a huge role in the outcome of a defendant’s trial. This was seen recently in the case of a Grand Rapids man who was just released after serving 13 years for a murder he did not commit. He was ultimately hurt by photographs which were not presented at trial, as well as the existence of a suggested suspect who no one bothered to follow up on.
The occurrence of wrongful convictions grows much more serious when it involves those who have been sentenced to death. Of the 50 states, only 12 do not have the death penalty, including Michigan. Human biology junior Joe Griffith supports the standpoint that Michigan holds regarding this issue. “Under any circumstance, I do not think that the taking someone’s life is a necessary form of punishment,” he said. The remaining 38 states condone the death penalty under specific circumstances, the federal government not withstanding. Kaveh Kashef, an Oakland County attorney, shares the views of these other 38 states, agreeing the death penalty should be enforced. “In the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution it states, ‘…nor shall any state deprive a person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law,’” Kashef said. “The implication from that statement is that ‘life’ can be ‘deprived’ as long as the person has ‘due process of law,’ which is our court system.”
These two components combined, wrongful convictions and the death penalty, present a frightening question. How many innocent people have been sentenced to death? How many have actually been executed? Since 1973, there have been 119 people exonerated from death row. 119 who were incorrectly sentenced to die. Oops.
The thought of this occurring seems unlikely, but it is not improbable. How could someone be falsely accused of committing a crime they did not have any part in? Surely if a case has gone far enough to convict a person or persons, they must have had some affiliation in the incident that occurred. Or did they? As unbelievable as it may seem to many, people have been known to falsely admit to crimes they did not commit. Assumptions as to how this may happen lie in issues related to suggestion from others and intense interrogation from the police. If there are other persons involved in a particular case, the false confession of a co-defendant can sometimes be used for the affiliated party. As previously mentioned, the incorrect identification of a suspect by a witness is the most prominent issue. It is not uncommon for a victim or witness to feel they must pick someone from a line-up, confident the person with the most similar characteristics must be the perpetrator they are seeking.
It becomes even more disappointing with the realization that certain situations could have been prevented. Not only that, but people who know nothing of the suspected/convicted may be working against them. Snitches are not uncommon among prison inmates and are often likely to participate in something that will benefit them. These are people who will falsely testify and/or accuse if they will be compensated in some manner, by making deals with people who can better their situations. Misconduct by authorities involved with a case is an additional factor in convicting the innocent. Sound familiar? Within the last few weeks there has been much talk and public footage of the speculated misconduct concerning students and the police after the MSU men’s basketball finals. It was MSU students that were expected to create chaos, when in fact, many of those arrested were not even affiliated with the school. Don’t be blind to the reality that varying circumstances allow each and every person to be vulnerable to a wrongful conviction of some sort.
In our society’s quest to find the truth when dealing with matters of law, the use of improving technology has been helpful, allowing the testing and identification of DNA to rule out most people who have been found innocent, and in some cases, identify the actual criminal. The most recognized organization dedicated to exonerating the innocent is The Innocence Project, a pro bono establishment dedicated to proving innocent those who have been falsely convicted through DNA testing. The center was opened in 1992 in New York City and has since exonerated 157 people. For additional information, please visit www.InnocenceProject.org.
After taking in all this information, it seems almost ironic that the United States has one of the most prestigious legal systems in the world. It also makes you wonder how matters such as these are dealt with elsewhere. There are many countries that don’t even require a serious crime to put their citizens to death and will punish people without certainty of guilt. Throughout the years, it has been the people of our own country who have decided upon the laws and regulations that dictate the consequences of people’s actions.
Dietetics junior Rachel Hill believes our legal system can always be improved, but says these regulations, as they stand now, are what we need to work with. “It’s so important to select unbiased people for our juries and have multiple people testify in every case,” she said. “These factors make it less likely for incorrect results. This does not only include people who are wrongfully convicted, but also those who are guilty and wrongfully set free.”
Considering his standpoint in previous years, Kashef has not changed his views and beliefs concerning the legal system since becoming a lawyer, and he remains strong in his faith that justice will be attained as was intended. “Because [the legal system] is run by the citizens, and the citizens are humans, mistakes will be made,” he said. “We try to include as many checks, balances, rules and procedures to minimize and catch mistakes, but sometimes they will get through.”
Kinesiology senior Tony Schuster agrees with Kashef’s statement. “I realize that the system isn’t perfect and there will always be flaws,” he said. “But as a whole I feel that it will generally carry out procedures in the anticipated manner with accurate results.”

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