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The Research Corner - Dr. Marvin Zalman

Academic research is often out of reach for many. In The Research Corner, Professor Marvin Zalman presents summaries of current academic research on wrongful conviction in a succinct and readable format. We hope that the summaries in The Research Corner will provide you with a more sophisticated understanding of innocence issues and stimulate further interest.

More information about Dr. Marvin Zalman

Dr. Zalman is a professor of Criminal Justice at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. He teaches classes on criminal justice policy and constitutional criminal procedure, and has taught a seminar on wrongful convictions.  He is an advisor to Proving Innocence and maintains a keen interest in our work.

Directly below, Dr. Zalman's reviews are presented in order of their publication in PI with the most recent being first. You may browse the articles by title or use our website's search function to find articles by key words.


John Roman, Kelly Walsh, Pamela Lachman, and Jennifer Yahner 
Post-Conviction DNA Testing and Wrongful Conviction 
Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 2012
After 1990 DNA exonerations helped spark the innocence movement. Critics argued that reported exonerations, even if a few thousand, are a tiny fraction of the one million felony convictions handed down every year. Innocence reformers argued that legal exonerations are the tip of an iceberg. 
Before the Urban Institute (UI) report was published in June 2012, the best studies of the incidence (rate or proportion of cases that occur in a given time period) of wrongful convictions were three studies of murder or death penalty cases where the numerators were exoneration cases and the denominators were similar kinds of cases. These studies found death penalty errors rates from 2.3% to 3.3%. 
Scholars believe it is not proper to extrapolate these figures to a general rate of wrongful conviction. 

Read more: The First Report of a General Rate of Wrongful Convictions

The First Psychiatric Assessment Of The Psychological Effects Of Wrongful Conviction And Imprisonment – The Effects Are Devastating

Adrian Grounds
Psychological Consequences of Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment.
Canadian Journal  Criminology and Criminal Justice 46:165-182 (2004)

Grounds reports the psychiatric assessments of eighteen male exonerees, sixteen in the United Kingdom and two from other jurisdictions.  The small sample is not necessarily representative and caution is recommended in making generalizations. Fifteen were wrongly convicted of murder (five in conjunction with terrorist bombings) and sentenced to life imprisonment; ten had served 11 years or more. Six made false confessions under interrogation pressure. Their average age on entry to prison was 28, and their average age on release was 38.

Before the assessments Grounds did not expect to find psychiatric morbidity. None of the men had significant past histories of psychiatric illness, and research on the effects of long-term imprisonment found little empirical evidence that incarceration generally leads to personality deterioration or psychiatric disorder.

Read more: The Psychological Effects of Wrongful Conviction

A Checklist and Brief Analysis of Recent Innocence Reforms Adopted by State Law – They Involve Eyewitness Identification, Forensic Science, False Confessions, Snitches, and Innocence Commissions

Robert J. Norris, Catherine L. Bonventre, Allison D. Redlich, and James R. Acker
“Than That One Innocent Suffer”: Evaluating State Safeguards Against Wrongful Convictions.  Albany Law Review 74(3):1301-1364 (2011)

This useful article describes state-level reforms stimulated by innocence movement research. It lists the reforms in general terms, the states that adopted them, the year adopted, and reform variations. Some reforms are expansive and others minimal.

Eyewitness identification reforms include recommendations to conduct“blind” lineups – the administrator does not know who the suspect is; instructing witnesses that the perpetrator may or may not be present in the lineup; selecting fillers that fit the witness’s description; taking a witness confidence statement; sequential (one-at-a-time) rather than simultaneous administration; and videotaping.  Some or all of these reforms have been adopted by ten states, beginning with New Jersey in 2001 and most recently by Vermont in 2011.  Some states have simply set up a task force to identify best practices. Others have mandated changes by legislation.  North Carolina passed the most comprehensive eyewitness identification reform law in 2008.

Read more: Reforms Adopted by State Law

To Prevent Wrongful Convictions, Criminal Justice Must Adopt Quality Control Techniques Used By Airline Pilots And Medical Doctors -- Admit To Making Mistakes And Use The Information To Correct Structural Errors

James M. Doyle
Learning from Error in American Criminal Justice.
Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 100:109-147 (2010).

This conceptual article views the innocence movement as a catalyst and vehicle for criminal justice system reform.  Doyle argues that the direction of innocence reform should “shift from the retrospective adversary inspection model of quality control toward an ideal of continuous quality improvement.”  The aviation and medical industries have pioneered quality control methods and cultures. A comparable model of criminal justice reform should be adopted.

A 1996 National Institute of Justice report on the first twenty-eight DNA exonerations found that errors leading to miscarriages of justice “came from the sort of bread-and-butter cases that everyone had handled and would handle again, not from arcane borderland specialties.” This central idea, which has become the innocence paradigm that focuses on about eight or ten key sources of wrongful convictions, means that correcting routine errors can make the crime detection and prosecution function more accurate.  Indeed, scores of recommendations for improving eyewitness identification, interrogations and the like have been advanced by hundreds of scholars.   

Read more: CJ Must Adopt Procedures Used by Pilots and Doctors

A Study Of Weaknesses In The Trial Process That Led To Wrongful Convictions And Weaknesses In The Appellate Processes That Rarely Exonerated – Most Of The 200 Exonerees Would Still Be In Prison If They Did Not Get Access To DNA Testing

Brandon L. Garrett
Judging Innocence.
Columbia Law Review 108: 55-141 (2008).

This complex study of the first 200 DNA exonerees examined their trials, appeals, post-conviction proceedings and exonerations, in great detail. Convictions were associated with familiar errors (eyewitness, forensic, informant, confessions).  Direct and habeas appeals were inadequate to review factual errors. The exonerees were disproportionately minority. Almost all of the convictions were for murder or rape.

Garrett also compiled a matched comparison group of cases for comparison, but because of its small size direct statistical comparison was not feasible.

The factors related to the wrongful convictions included eyewitness testimony (79%), forensic evidence (57%), informant testimony (18%) and false confessions (16%).  The forensic errors were chiefly serological analysis and microscopic hair comparison, and these kinds of analysis are no longer performed or relied on to convict defendants.

Read more: A Study of Weaknesses in the Process