Investigating wrongful convictions: a new model

One of the most tangible ways investigative journalism can produce meaningful impact is through intensive inquiry into possible wrongful convictions.

In modern Canadian history, journalists have played an active role in this process since the 1950s. J.E. Belliveau of the Toronto Star questioned the conviction of Wilbert Coffin, who was hanged in Bordeaux jail in 1956 for the killing of an American hunter in Quebec three years earlier. Jacques Hébert also took up the investigation, leading to a royal commission and questions about the conviction that continue to today. Betty Lee of the Globe and Mail did a similar expose of the Arthur Lucas case. Lucas was executed in Toronto’s Don Jail in 1962 for killing an FBI informant. But the most famous case of that era, of course, involved Steven Truscott.

Isabel LeBourdais spent years investigating Truscott’s case and trying valiantly to persuade a media outlet or book publisher to run with her story of wrongful conviction. But there was timidity on the part of the publishing community, and a general feeling that the justice system could not be held to account as emphatically and stridently as LeBourdais proposed. She eventually went to a British publisher who agreed to put out her book, which had longstanding impact and led to a lengthy re-examination of Truscott’s case — a case that was not finally resolved until his recent exoneration.

All the early pioneering journalists played a crucial role in convincing Canadian authorities that capital punishment had to be abolished. In more recent times, journalists had a major hand in helping to clear wrongly convicted men such as David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin and James Driskell, among others.

But mounting a thorough investigation into a wrongful conviction is a complicated endeavour. It can’t be done on a daily deadline. Any journalist undertaking such an investigation has to devote serious time and resources to the project. In today’s journalistic climate, that can be a challenge.

Throughout the US and in some Canadian cities, Innocence Projects have been formed. These are agencies, usually connected to universities, that investigate cases of wrongful convictions. The Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University in Chicago, for example, has freed 11 men, five of them on death row. In some cases, Innocence Projects have forged partnerships with journalists to share the work and ensure that cases are properly investigated and publicized.

One interesting partnership exists at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. Since 2001, the Innocence Institute there has completed more than a dozen investigations into possible wrongful convictions. Bill Moushey of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette organized the Innocence Institute and publishes articles on the results of the investigations in his newspaper.

It’s a model that could prove useful to Canadian universities and media outlets. So far, Canada only has Innocence Projects in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and their main focus is on law schools rather than media agencies. But as many of the Canadian wrongful conviction examples demonstrate, media pressure was a crucial component in convincing justice systems to re-examine cases. The federal justice minister, for example, rejected David Milgaard’s appeal, but reconsidered only after further media revelations and pressure mounted by Milgaard’s supporters.

While it is difficult to state with certainty how many people are wrongly convicted, academic studies suggest the number could be anywhere between one and five per cent of all convictions, or higher. Only in recent years have serious flaws been noted in the fields of hair analysis, eye witness testimony, police interrogation methods and a host of other factors that were routinely unquestioned in past prosecutions. All of this has led to wrongful convictions, and many of them still remain to be discovered. The thought of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wrongly convicted people languishing in jails is offensive in any society that calls itself democratic. Investigative journalism, which has as one of its main aims to hold powerful institutions to account, needs to play a vigorous role in this field. Partnerships with universities might be a viable way to do so in the future.