Here at The Constitution Project, we often talk of the role that state actors – particularly law enforcement, defense lawyers, and the courts – must play in order to prevent miscarriages of justice such as wrongful convictions. We believe that in too many cases, forces external to our justice system act as a failsafe. Time and time again, for example, journalists have rung the alarm, revealing mishandled, withheld, or fabricated evidence, or incompetent or overwhelmed defense lawyers. It is well-known that the journalism students at Northwestern were responsible for shedding light on the systemic error in capital cases in Illinois that led then-Governor George Ryan to eventually commute over 150 death sentences in that state. A journalist at The New Yorker exposed the serious doubts about the guilt of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by Texas in 2004. And a Louisville Courier-Journal Reporter appears to be the only source of information in Kentucky concerning the misconduct of prosecutors, judges, and defense counsel in the case of Gregory Wilson, who remains on Kentucky’s death row. In short, the media are often credited with righting wrongs in our system of justice and raising important questions that must be answered by those in positions of power.
But, as a case study just issued by veteran crime journalist David J. Krajicek for the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America reveals, the media have also “bought into the tunnel vision” that has led to “railroaded convictions.” In each of the cases cited in Krajicek’s study, an innocent defendant was sentenced to death. His report analyzes the media’s “culpability” in contributing to the wrongful convictions in three notable cases out of Florida, Maryland, and Alabama and reveals troubling patterns regarding the media’s role in such cases.
As we’ve said before, death penalty cases are often fraught with error due to public uproar concerning the underlying crime – and the media should not fan these flames. Relatedly, The Constitution Project will issue a new report on the death penalty in the coming weeks, addressing the role that prosecutors, defenders, police, and the courts must take on to ensure fairness and accuracy in capital cases.