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The 'sexy' side of criminal law - fixing wrongful convictions, and why people confess to crimes they didn't commit

Living your life after 20 years spent outside society for a crime you didn’t commit is no joke says president of the Innocence Project of Iowa Brian Farrell.

shutterstock_437224012 Source: Shutterstock/BortN66

WRONGFUL CONVICTIONS, LIKE so many abstract topics for the majority of us, probably mostly manifest themselves in the public consciousness via popular culture.

You might think of Emma Thompson grandstanding as barrister Gareth Pierce in In The Name of The Father (which details the exoneration of Gerry Conlan of the Guildford Four), or any number of Hollywood takes on the subject, from the Shawshank Redemption to The Hurricane to Double Jeopardy. The conviction is the wellspring for drama and an invariably dramatic denouement.

The reality of such convictions is naturally a little more mundane. But real life takes a far greater toll than that seen in a multiplex.

“It is a draw for law students in particular – it’s one of the ‘sexy’ aspects of criminal law,” Brian Farrell tells Farrell is a lecturer in law and human rights at the University of Iowa and president of the Innocence Project of Iowa.

Yesterday he gave a seminar at NUI Galway on the modern-day applications of science when it comes to wrongful convictions and the ways the criminal justice system can learn from the exoneration of the innocent.

The overturning of wrongful convictions is certainly a worldwide phenomenon – there have been over 350 such actions in the US alone since the maturation of DNA techniques. On this side of the Atlantic, the quashing of convictions for the Birmingham Six and aforementioned Guildford Four are two British examples with an Irish connection.

On Irish soil, there are quite a number of examples of such miscarriages of justice (you can read more about some of them here  – such as that of Frank Shortt, a Donegal publican convicted of allowing drugs to be sold in his place of business and imprisoned on the back of the actions of two gardaí, and Martin Conmey, who served three years in prison in the 1970s for a manslaughter he didn’t commit.

Joanne Hayes

But what Farrell has to say is perhaps most immediately pertinent to the case of Joanne Hayes – the Kerry woman who confessed to a crime she could not possibly have committed to gardaí in 1984. He has ideas as to why a person will willingly confess to something they didn’t do.

“You have people going through this trauma, of going to prison for something they didn’t do. And they have difficulty in figuring out why it happened – ‘why did I say those words?’,” Farrell says.

He cites the example of an acquaintance, Eddie Lowrey, a man who served nine years in prison in Kansas for a rape he didn’t commit from 1981. 22 years later DNA was used to vacate the convictions after Lowrey tired of having to register as a sex offender year-on-year. He served the entirety of his sentence however.

“He was coerced (Lowrey was given no food during his initial interrogation),” says Farrell, “but it wasn’t beaten out of him.”

In those circumstances it was an easy out for him. You view the short-term benefits of confessing ahead of the long-term negatives, even though they end with prison. You think to yourself ‘If I get out of here we’ll figure out the truth. I just need out of this place, it’ll all be ok’. And obviously that may be reinforced by the investigator.

“That’s why it’s so important to listen to exonerees, and to learn from what has happened to them.”

farrell010_ Brian Farrell Source: Thomas Langdon

Farrell is part of the Iowa Innocence Project, one of 60 such in the US alone. Most of his work, which is entirely voluntary, is taken up with considering the various applications they receive, and then in processing those legally so that the case is in a position to be revisited. His own state, Iowa, has no death penalty meaning capital convictions don’t tend to be part of his remit.

“A lot of it is assisting with expertise, and working with the authorities to improve the criminal justice system, to learn from past mistakes. I view it as my own pro bono work as a lawyer. It probably comes to about 150 hours a year. If I had space it would take more of that time,” he says.

He states that ‘maybe one in 10′ of the applications they receive will represent a possible, explorable case of ‘actual, factual innocence’. “Then we need evidentiary legal avenues to prove it.”

Some cases we have to decide on the mental state of the defendant, if they didn’t intend their act, but all the evidence in the world can’t get you inside that person’s head.

“We’re a very small project, very low-budget and all voluntary.”

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‘Pleas of innocence are commonplace’

Farrell freely acknowledges that pleas of innocence are utterly commonplace, but argues that every one has to be listened to – “because they include the one in 70 who actually didn’t do it”.

He tries to explain how law enforcement may pursue a wrong lead all the way to conviction:

“There have been cases in Iowa, before our time, where the police failed to follow a lead and neglected to turn over that information to the defence, which they’re obliged to do.”

That can lead to “a combination of bad acts and tunnel vision”. “One case saw the police put everything into chasing two individuals to the exclusion of everything else. And in such cases the prosecutor may truly believe they have the correct culprit – because they don’t have the full information.”

Farrell has spent a lot of time around exonerees – and their plight is clearly personal to him.

“The lawyers are in it for the big punch-the-air moment. But too often then it’s a case of ‘off you go and good luck to you’ for those who have been declared innocent, now that you’ve been out of society for 20 years, and prison is the only thing on your resumé.”

These guys often may not even have the social services that parolees have. We’re learning a lot from exonerees, but they need to be understood and helped also.

He cites the examples of married couple Sunny Jacobs (convicted of the murder of a Canadian police constable in 1976, released in 1992) and former IRA volunteer (and father of current TD for Donegal Thomas) Peter Pringle (convicted of the murder of two gardaí during a botched robbery getaway in 1980, released in 1995 after the case against him was deemed unsafe), and the work they do with exonerees.

“I’m aware of the work that they do, to help exonerees move back to normal life,” he says.

The system has a hard job and it does make mistakes. That calls for increased humility. The task is difficult and challenging, dealing with incomplete evidence and a lack of information, but it always has to be borne in mind with regard to the certainty of the outcome. We do have examples of things where they’ve gone terribly wrong.”

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