Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tunnel Vision

Tunnel vision is repeatedly identified as one of the main causes of wrongful convictions, yet most people don't take it seriously, some even scoff at it.  Tunnel vision is not a rogue cop breaking all the rules just because he can.  Tunnel vision is systemic, meaning it touches all people involved in criminal investigations and prosecutions -- cops, DA's, lab technicians, and even witnesses.

This is an excerpt from a book written about tunnel vision in the Canadian criminal justice system and efforts to eradicate it. 

Honouring Social Justice
By Margaret E. Beare
University of Toronto PressDec 8, 2008 

“A presentation given by Russ Grabb, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), using a football analogy illustrates what individual officers must be trained to do.  The caption beside the slides instructs the police that good case management involves ‘Staying in your lanes,’ otherwise, if everyone follows ‘the football’ (one targeted suspect), the real action might shift to another part of the field where no players are focused.  Follow all leads and resist the pressure to focus too narrowly on one suspect too early in an investigation with the result that other suspects are ignored or ‘hard’ police work is never done to discover other potential suspects. 
                On paper this is compellingly clear.  However, it may underplay the fact that in wrongful conviction cases, unlike some other types of major cases, there may be few suspects and an enormous pressure to convict.  Witness interviews, surveillance, media releases, dog handler (possibly), and neighbourhood inquiries will inevitable focus down on the likeliest of suspects.  Building ‘the’ case becomes paramount.  If the case is not solved in the period immediately following the crime (i.e. the blood drenched butler), the task becomes to put the person you suspect into the frame and fit the facts as best you can.” 

Beare goes on to say:  “However, even putting an emphasis on eliminating the use of these procedures still does not reach deep enough in order to identify the systemic reasons why the police, usually together with other segments of the justice system, have been found to be repeatedly guilty of:
*blindly relying on eyewitness accounts
*holding back of exculpatory evidence
*planting/tampering with evidence
*police notebook collusion
*reliance on ludicrous jailhouse informants
*coercion of witnesses/coercion of suspects
*collusion with forensic ‘experts’ or merely faulty science
These easily identified failings may operate independent of the very best intentions of any individual officer.  Rather than separate factors that result in a wrongful conviction, winning/game theory, police culture, media relations, promotions, political interference, and funding issues are all interwoven and result in tunnel vision.  Hence ‘tunnel vision’ is not one concept to be avoided but rather a term used much too loosely to apply to a complex network of systemic, structural, and, on occasion, individual factors.

The author continues:  As Justice Marc Rosenberg said in reference to Thomas Sophonow, ‘Wrongful convictions are caused by underlying systemic problems that won’t be fixed as long as the miscarriage of justice is treated as an isolated event . . . wrongful convictions don’t occur in a vacuum.”

Beare argues that "we maintain and support a system that virtually guarantees a reoccurrence of innocent people spending time in jail.
The fault lies with the gravity of the legal system that thrives on an impenetrable and false ‘justice script.’  With all of the weight of tradition elite social status, and political power, this script sustains and is sustained by three fallacies:
*that the ‘assumption of innocence’ has a currency that can be depended upon to work to the protection of the accused;
*that justice officials, from police through all of the performers for the duration of the court process are concerned with truth – telling it, allowing it to be told, responding to it;
*that the ‘adversarial’ nature of the courts tempers the power of the state against the accused.

Note:  Thomas Sophonow (born March 1953[) is a Canadian who was wrongfully convicted of murder and whose case was the subject of a major judicial inquiry. Sophonow was tried three times in the 1981 murder of doughnut-shop clerk Barbara Stoppel. Sophonow spent four years imprisoned. In 1985, he was acquitted by the Manitoba Court of Appeal.