Wrongful Conviction Conference At Harvard

By: Mary Rogers

Seventeen prisoners who were exonerated and freed from prison were honored at the Harvard Law School at a two-day conference on wrongful convictions in April. Diverse panels discussed the procedural problems of misidentification, false confessions, jailhouse snitches, ineffective assistance of counsel, and prosecutors’ failure to disclose evidence.

Among those honored were Hurricane Carter, Rodriquez Charles, Ronald Cotton, Gary Gauger, Christopher Harding, Angel Hernandez, Donnel Johnson, Lawyer Johnson, Bobby Joe Leaster, Lawrence Miller, Neil Miller, Marvin Mitchell, Marlon Passley, Peter Limone, Joseph Salvatti, Kenneth Waters (posthumous), and Eric Sarsfield.

One of the highlights of the conference was hearing Jennifer Thompson, a victim of rape, and Michael Gaulden, the detective who worked on the case. Thompson has the strength and courage to tell one of the most compelling tales of misidentification, as proven through DNA testing.

Thompson paid careful attention to her rapist’s features and identified Ronald Cotton as the assailant at both a trial and a retrial, even after jailhouse snitches began circulating word that someone else had confessed. Gaulden, who had been there throughout the investigation and trials, delivered the news that Thompson had misidentified Cotton. When Thompson decided to meet Cotton, she found that he wasn’t angry at her and forgave her. She says that she began to heal at that moment. The two are close friends now and travel together to speak.

In another panel, experts from Britain explained their more progressive approach to police identification procedures and interrogations. Gary Wells said that they have been able to determine that showing individual photographs of suspects one at a time results in a more accurate identification. Many in attendance strongly suggested that entire interrogations be taped.

Dr. Maggie Bruch, an expert on child sexual abuse cases, explained how a child can be manipulated by asking a question over and over again, until the answer that investigators want is heard. Both panelists and audience voiced the need to preserve evidence that might be the subject of testing, particularly DNA.