How Important are Practices and Procedures in an Imperfect World? This Much.

Stuff happens, right? You can say that again. Last week, two women in New York were released from prison more than eight years after being wrongly convicted of a home-invasion robbery. For an object lesson on all that can go wrong in a criminal case, consider their story.

It begins in 2005, when a guy gets shot in a robbery at his home, and he’s left for dead. They call it a “push-in” robbery because the perpetrators pushed their way into his apartment before they bound him, gagged him, plugged him twice in the stomach, and stuffed him in a closet.

The guy’s in a coma for three weeks, and when he comes to, he remembers meeting two young women and inviting them to his apartment. He remembers they came over the next day, and the three of them had a good time, so he invited them back, but when they returned the next day, they demanded money, and when he refused, they came back that night with three male companions who weren’t friendly at all.

The guy seems to remember that one of the women had used his cell phone, so detectives ask him to check his phone records for unfamiliar numbers. In his morphine-induced state, he points to a number that he doesn’t recognize, but he’s mistaken. In fact, it’s a number he has dialed before but had simply misdialed on that occasion. He doesn’t realize that, and that’s mistake number one.

His mistake causes detectives to home in on that misdialed number, and guess what? The number happens to belong to the father of a 19-year-old woman. When detectives show the victim a photo array that includes the 19-year-old daughter, he picks her out. That’s mistake number two.

Soon the authorities pick up the 19-year-old daughter, and when they do, she’s with a friend who sort of resembles the second woman from the robbery, so they take the friend in too. After nearly 24 hours of unrecorded interrogation, the 19-year-old writes a statement confessing to the crime. Her statement is replete with factual details that were supplied or suggested by detectives and that later prove to be wrong. But she signs it, and it seals her fate.

The girl and her friend are convicted at trial and sentenced to 40 years in prison. It doesn’t help that the girls are also identified by neighbors who witnessed some of the crime, which might be good evidence except the witnesses were just shown photos of the two girls, not an array of photos that included them and others. The defense challenges this procedure as blatantly suggestive, but the judge lets the evidence in anyway.

Is ours a good system? Sure, generally and relatively speaking. But this stuff happens more than we care to believe. In the end, the two women in this case were freed because of the years-long work and diligence of public defenders who took up their cause on appeal. If it weren’t for them, perhaps, no one would have ever known.

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