In the criminal-justice system romanticized by Hollywood films, those convicted of crimes are generally guilty. And a protagonist need only prove that someone’s been wrongly imprisoned to get them freed by a judiciary that values truth and justice. The scrappy investigative reporter, jaded detective, or overmatched defense attorney comes up with the key piece of evidence that proves beyond doubt that someone has been wrongly convicted, and in the next scene that person walks out of the courthouse to be surrounded by joyful loved ones and supporters as the credits roll.
The real world is often quite different. Since it was established in 1992, the Innocence Project has succeeded in reversing the convictions of over 200 people, but the group says that a “staggering number of innocent people” remain behind bars today.
Perhaps even more troubling is that even when clear, indisputable evidence emerges showing that someone has been imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit, prosecutors, police, and judges will often fight tooth and nail to keep them incarcerated.
In his new book, Blind Injustice: A Former Prosecutor Exposes the Psychology and Politics of Wrongful Convictions, University of Cincinnati legal scholar Mark Godsey examines why that happens. Godsey was a former prosecutor who would later go on to co-found the Ohio Innocence Project, a chapter of the national organization. The book, which is in part a confessional, looks at how innocent people can become the victims of faulty eyewitness testimony, bad forensics, and a variety of blinding cognitive biases on the part of law-enforcement personnel, prosecutors, and judges, and why the system so tenaciously defends the status quo, even when it’s guilty of railroading innocent citizens.
With so much attention rightly focused on racial injustice in recent years, Godsey’s book offers another important piece of the puzzle. You can listen to my 25-minute discussion with Godsey in the player above, or read a transcript that’s been edited for length and clarity below.
Joshua Holland: You were an accomplished prosecutor in New York—a prosecutor’s prosecutor, as you write in the book. You believed in the system. And at first, you were skeptical about the Innocence Project. Tell us a little bit about how you came to be an advocate for reform.
Mark Godsey: It was by accident. I was very proud of my job and loved being a prosecutor. I went into academia to become a law professor, and the first school where I got a job had an Innocence Project. When I arrived, they said, “The professor who runs it is on sabbatical this year. Since you’ve got a criminal-law background, you’re going to have to supervise it.’ I really couldn’t say no—I was untenured, I was the new guy on the block. But I remember thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me. There are no innocent people in prison.” That was my view.