Even if you’ve watched Law & Order episodes for decades, you may be shocked by the way a University of Utah law professor’s new book describes how easy it is for innocent people to be convicted of crimes.
Once an assistant director of the Second Look Program at Brooklyn Law School, Daniel S. Medwed spent years looking into cases where innocent men and women spent years in prison before finally being freed or exonerated. In Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent, Medwed explains how that happens, and what can be done to see that it happens less often.
The picture he paints of current conditions is alarming and eye-opening. Armed with dozens of specific examples from case history, Medwed discusses how government prosecutors can wind up pursuing the wrong suspect, whether due to psychological factors like confirmation bias, or institutional factors like the need to maintain positive relationships with police, and secure convictions to advance their careers. He also describes a legal-system framework that offers additional layers of dangers, from a grand jury system that doesn’t require prosecutors to disclose potential exculpatory evidence to a disciplinary structure that almost never holds prosecutors accountable for misconduct. And in perhaps the most infuriating section, he describes how prosecutors often dig in their heels and refuse to admit error even when clear evidence emerges that an innocent person is in prison—and how existing standards for legal review make it all too easy for them to do so.
Medwed doesn’t shy away from delving into the details of specific case law and precedent, yet the human details of the stories he explores help steer Prosecution Complex away from feeling purely academic. It’s not just a wake-up call for legislatures and the legal system; it should motivate every citizen to re-think assumptions about how much is at risk because of the status quo. Prosecution Complex challenges us all to work towards changes that can be more likely to result in genuine justice, rather than the comfortable feeling that comes simply from putting somebody behind bars.
Daniel S. Medwed reads from and signs Prosecution Complex at the I.J. and Jeanné Wagner Jewish Community Center, 2 N. Medical Drive, Tuesday, March 6 at 7 p.m.; free and open to the public.