Tuesday, August 27, 2002

DNA in the News: Imperfect Evidence and Imperfect Justice

Yesterday we commented on an attempt to use DNA evidence to exonerate a prisoner of murder (and rape). Today we can report that the attempted exoneration was successful and that the (former) prisoner is Eddie Joe Lloyd.

The exoneration of Mr. Lloyd (by the Innocence Project) moved the NYTimes to editorialize, "Every DNA reversal is a lesson in the problems with one prosecutorial tool or another. Witnesses are unreliable. Criminals will lie in exchange for lenient treatment. Mr. Lloyd's case shows that even a signed confession is not always what it seems. And it provides further proof that the American justice system is imperfect at best, and frequently far too flawed to rely on capital punishment." Section A; Page 16; Column 1; Editorial Desk (Headline "110 Wrongful Convictions, and Counting"), August 27, 2002, Tuesday, Late Edition - Final.

We have no opinion about Mr. Lloyd's guilt or innocence; we are unfamiliar with the details of his case. However, we do have some questions about the NYTimes view of the case:

#1: Was it DNA that taught the NYTimes that "witnesses [can be] unreliable"? Or did the NYTimes know that before?

#1A: Did DNA and the Lloyd case teach the NYTimes that witnesses are always unreliable? (If so, the NYTimes editors might wish to reconsider their position.)

#2: Did the NYTimes only recently realize that "[c]riminals will lie in exchange for lenient treatment"?

#2A: Does the NYTimes believe that the (unreliable) testimony of criminals who hope for lenient treatment should be removed from the courtrooms of our land? Always? Should such testimony be removed from the pages of our newspapers? And should the (unreliable) testimony of criminals or prisoners who give testimony in the hope of exculpating themselves also be removed from the courtrooms and newspapers of our land? (If so, should the American criminal justice system and the NYTimes have ignored Mr. Lloyd's professions of his innocence?)

#3: Is it news (to the NYTimes) that "even a signed confession is not always what it seems"?

#4: Does Mr. Lloyd's case demonstrate that "the American justice system is imperfect"? (The answer is "yes" -- though we do have to assume Mr. Lloyd's innocence.)

#4A: Does Mr. Lloyd's case -- or the 109 other cases of apparent exculpation to which the NYTimes refers -- reveal the extent of the imperfections in the "American [criminal] justice system"? Or is it necessary to know how many times the criminal justice gets it right?

Questions, questions! What about answers?

Well, consider these (limited) points:

First: Although capital punishment may be a bad idea, the Lloyd case -- by itself -- only shows -- at most -- that the American criminal justice system sometimes convicts innocent people. The Lloyd case (by itself) does not show the relative frequency of wrongful convictions.

Second: While the Lloyd case (and cases like it) may show that witnesses and confessions are sometimes "unreliable," the Lloyd case and cases like it do not show that witnesses or confessions are always or ordinarily unreliable (much less worthless), and the Lloyd case and cases like it do not by themselves tell us how the American justice system should deal with confessions or self-interested testimony.

Third: The Lloyd case should teach us -- but it won't, alas --, it should teach us that DNA evidence is not a magic bullet on the question of criminal guilt or innocence. While I have little reason to doubt Mr. Lloyd's claim of innocence, there is ample reason to reject any claim that the DNA evidence in his case -- or in any other case -- conclusively demonstrates his innocence. Errors run two ways in the criminal justice system -- in favor of criminal defendants as well against them. And, DNA (or any other existing forensic technology) notwithstanding, fact finding errors of either kind remain inevitable in the criminal justice system.

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