The American Legal System: Swift Justice or Careless Conviction

February 25th, 3:30 – 5:45pm

This week’s debate will focus on the American Legal System and the issue of wrongful convictions and the implications it has had on our judicial process as a whole.  There will not be two sides in this debate, but a panel of both students and professors sharing their different views.


Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, aptly stated that her “job as a prosecutor is to do justice. And justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not.”  While such a statement seems an obvious point to make with regards to the law, the facts highlight how murky the judicial system can truly be when dealing with law breakers.  The average length of time served by exonerees is 13.6 years. Innocent prisoners have served a total of 4,041 combined years behind bars.  Such staggering figures symbolize the flaws that are present in the current legal system.  In 2001, the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School analyzed the cases of 86 death row exonerees. They found a number of reasons why innocent people are wrongly convicted in capital cases. The reasons included eyewitness error from confusion or faulty memory, government misconduct by both the police and the prosecution, junk science through mishandled evidence or unqualified experts, snitch testimony often given in favor of a reduced sentence, false confessions resulting from mental illness or retardation as well as police torture and finally circumstantial evidence that has led to many defense cases being dismissed.

Considering the fact that the United State of America is one of very few countries that employs the death penalty as a remedy to particularly harsh crimes, the stakes are significantly higher for the accused.  As such, the United States Constitution provides criminal defendants a host of important rights, including the right to counsel, largely to ensure that the innocent are not wrongly convicted. Further, we presume those accused of a crime to be innocent and insist that no defendant should be found guilty unless the prosecution can show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is, in fact, guilty.  The system imposes this high burden on the prosecution and provides the defendant with so many rights because we believe that it is better to let the guilty go free than to convict the innocent.  In theory, then, if the adversary system is working properly, innocent persons will not be convicted.  So where has the system failed?


Professor Daniel S. Medwed

Daniel S. Medwed, a nationally-recognized authority on wrongful convictions, has wrestled with these issues for nearly fifteen years, ever since he accepted a job as a public defender with the Legal Aid Society of New York City. Combining his hands-on experience in the courtroom and his role as a teacher and scholar in the classroom, Medwed shows how prosecutors are told to lock up criminals and protect the rights of defendants. This double role creates an institutional “prosecution complex” that animates how district attorneys’ offices treat potentially innocent defendants at all stages of the process—and that can cause prosecutors to aid in the conviction of the innocent.  Ultimately, Prosecution Complex is not intended to portray prosecutors as rogue officials indifferent to the conviction of the innocent, but rather to explain why, while most prosecutors aim to do justice, only some hit that target consistently.
Professor Medwed’s research interests primarily revolve around criminal law, with a particular emphasis on the issue of wrongful convictions. His forthcoming book, Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent (New York University Press, 2012), explores how even well-meaning prosecutors occasionally contribute to wrongful convictions due to cognitive biases and an overly-deferential regime of ethical and doctrinal rules.
Professor Daniel Krauss
Daniel Krauss completed a joint degree program in psychology and law at the University of Arizona, receiving his J.D. and then his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and psychology, policy, and law. He is a professor and chair of the psychology department at Claremont McKenna College. Professor Krauss is primarily interested in the interaction of law and clinical psychology, and has published over 45 research articles and book chapters relating to clinical psychological evaluations for the courts, legal and psychological expertise, and jury decision-making. In 2002-3, he left CMC for a year to serve as a Supreme Court Fellow at the United States Sentencing Commission. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of California, and a diplomate in forensic psychology, board certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology. In 2010, he was awarded the Early Career Research Award by the Western Psychological Association.
He will briefly discuss both the cognitive errors psychological experts make in crafting their opinions for the courts and that jurors make in evaluating their expertise, and how these errors has implications for capital sentencing decisions.
Elise Hansell ’15
Elise Hansell is a Junior at CMC who is majoring in Philosophy and Public Affairs. Her interest in legal advocacy lead her to spend the summer of 2013 working for the Legal Aid Society within the Brooklyn Criminal Practice. At Legal Aid Society, Elise worked as an investigator to retrieve documentary and testimonial evidence for criminal cases. On campus, Elise works at the Rose Institute for State and Local Government, where one of her projects includes working with Professor Bessette to compile data in order to create National, as well as California-specific, Crime Funnels.
Sam Stone’14

Sam Stone is a CMC Senior majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). As a senior attorney and the former President of the CMC Mock Trial team, he is intimately familiar with the world of pretend-law but also interested in issues of real law. Sam has studied the intersection of psychology and law with Professor Krauss, and is currently researching the influence of judicial elections on the justice system and political process in California for his thesis.

Izzy Laterzo ’16
Izzy Laterzo is a CMC Sophomore majoring in International Relations.  She is a Lead Coordinator for The Current.
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