Thompson on wrongful convictions

Sandra ThompsonA national expert on eyewitness identification procedures, University of Houston Law Center Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson is on a mission to shine a light on the injustices of the criminal justice system with her new book,  American Justice in the Age of Innocence.

Written for judges, lawyers and scholars alike, American Justice in the Age of Innocence examines wrongful convictions and the most common causes behind breakdowns in the legal system. The book is co-edited by Thompson, the director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the Law Center, and two of her top students, Hillary K. Valderrama and Jennifer L. Hopgood. Thompson’s students contributed to the book by writing chapters on specific topics, such as eyewitness identifications and false confessions.

In honor of the publication, Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis invited the University of Houston Law Center’s Criminal Justice Institute to host a reception in the state Capitol. The event was held in conjunction with a national symposium on indigent defense being held by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.

A member of the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions for the Texas Legislature Introduction, Thompson answers some general questions about wrongful convictions, criminal justice reform, and American Justice in the Age of Innocence.

Q: How did this book come about?

A: . My students wrote a collection of essays which Jennifer, Hillary and I edited and complied into a book. This was a seminar project that we decided to do to coincide with my work on the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions. The advisory panel was formed by the Texas legislature to give the legislature guidance on statutory changes that could prevent and discover wrongful convictions.  It is rare for law students to publish and edit a book while they are in law school, and I am exceedingly proud of them.

Q: What is the “Age of Innocence?”

A: I believe we are currently in "the age of innocence" because the recent exoneration of more than 200 wrongly convicted people across the U.S. has renewed public interest in how existing safeguards are insufficient in protecting defendants wrongly prosecuted and convicted for crimes they didn't commit. My personal belief is that Texas has executed innocent people.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with this book?

A: It is my hope that American Justice in the Age of Innocence can be a useful tool in reforming the American criminal justice system. This book gives legislatures guidance on the needed reforms. It is written in an accessible style so that it will be useful to a general audience as well. The time is right to talk about criminal justice reform because news reports regularly tell of the horrors of innocent people who have spent decades behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit. Wrongful convictions result in multiple tragedies—innocent people are wrongly punished, their families suffer greatly as well, states will have to pay compensation if and when the innocents are exonerated, and true culprits remain at large to prey on society again. Criminal justice reform is necessary for society to maintain its faith in our legal system.

Q: What are some of the most common causes of wrongful convictions?

A: Eyewitness identifications, custodial interrogations and confessions, jailhouse informants and the use of questionable forensic science have all been linked to wrongful convictions.

Q: What is being done to reform the criminal justice system?

A: Many states are already adopting procedures recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice which will reduce wrongful conviction. I recently participated in the development of a model policy on eyewitness identification procedures for Texas law enforcement during a meeting of the Eyewitness Identifications Working Group. The new procedures will be implemented pursuant to a new law passed in January 2011. Texas will become the fifth state to issue state-of-the-art procedures for eyewitness identifications as a means of reducing wrongful convictions. The new rules aim to reduce the suggestiveness that can cause an eyewitness to select the person known by the police officer to be the suspect. They also include a variety of requirements that prevent artificially inflating a witness’s confidence in the selection and the possibility of witnesses influencing each other.

To schedule an interview with Thompson, please contact: Carrie Criado, Executive Director of Communications and Marketing, cacriado@Central.UH.EDU, 713.743.2184; or John Kling, Communications Manager, jtkling@central.uh.edu , 713.743.8298.