Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tunnel Vision

This weekend Bob Edwards interviewed George Mason University Professor Jon Gould, who chairs the Virginia Innocence Commission and has recently written The Innocence Commission: Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Restoring the Criminal Justice System.

A frequent characteristic of wrongful convictions is what Gould describes as "tunnel vision." It's also called confirmation bias, the tendency to ignore facts that don't square with one's preconceived ideas. In eight of eleven exonerations in Virginia tunnel vision was present.

Tunnel vision was surely present in Todd's case. The authorities decided early-on to charge him, well before they had time to analyze evidence and witness statements. When Det Rick Frady wrote up his report of an interview with witness Chas Schwartz, he conveniently failed to mention some of the most exculpatory content of the interview. Frady explained later that he hadn't been able to review the video of the interview before writing his notes because he thought the VCR had failed to work properly. So he relied upon perceptions colored by his tunnel vision. The prosecutors themselves were unaware of the existence of this videotape until a week into the trial.

Even worse, though, than Frady's tunnel vision was prosecutor Amy Mullaney's tunnel vision. She actually decided to rush a plea agreement with Brad Orgill, the only person seen to have been fighting with victim Anthony Madril, months before the State Crime Lab even began its forensic evaluation of the physical evidence. And almost a year before the Colorado Springs Metro Crime Lab determined that Orgill could not be ruled out as the assailant.

The Virginia Innocence offers the following common-sense suggestions for reducing unwarranted focus on on single suspect or "Tunnel Vision":

  1. Tunnel vision, in which officers jump too quickly to the conclusion that a particular suspect is guilty or focus solely on one person to the exclusion of other viable suspects, is a special danger in law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies should train their officers to document all exculpatory, as well as inculpatory, evidence about a particular suspect/individual that they discover and to include this information in their official reports to ensure that all exculpatory information comes to the attention of prosecutors and subsequently to defense attorneys.
  2. Law enforcement agencies should train their officers to pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry, whether they point toward or away from a particular suspect.
  3. During the initial training of their officers and during refresher training for experienced officers, law enforcement agencies should present studies of wrongful convictions to highlight the pitfalls of “tunnel vision.”

All good ideas.

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