Lessons About Justice From the 'Laboratory' of Wrongful Convictions: Informants, Confessions, and Tunnel Vision

Dianne L. Martin, York University

The prosecution of criminal cases is premised on a series of ideologically grounded but otherwise untested assumptions, such as the value of judicial instructions to jurors about permitted uses of prejudicial evidence, and the efficacy of procedural and evidentiary rules about the presentation of evidence and the conduct of trials. The product of the vagaries of the common law, or the politicized venue of the legislature, the value of these rules and procedures is largely a matter of faith. That faith has been challenged by a recognition that the system is fraught with error brought about by recent acknowledgement of significant numbers of wrongful convictions. Many of these miscarriages of justice have been subjected to close scrutiny by commissions of inquiry and the like. For the first time it is possible to test the rules of procedure and evidence against known outcomes -- and the lessons are disturbing. This paper explores a number of basic principles of criminal trials against the lessons learned from acknowledged wrongful convictions.

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Updated 05/20/2006