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Barred: Why the Innocent Can't Get Out of Prison

Daniel S Medwed

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Sentencing & punishment

A prominent legal scholar uncovers how our justice system makes it nearly impossible to overturn wrongful convictions.

Tens of thousands of innocent people are behind bars for offenses ranging from misdemeanors to capital crimes. But proving their innocence in the court of law is extraordinarily difficult. After conviction, the presumption of innocence vanishes, and a new presumption of guilt forms and ossifies over time. Our criminal justice system values finality over accuracy, even if it comes at the cost of an innocent person's wrongful conviction and even when there's good evidence they haven't committed the crime. In Barred, acclaimed legal scholar and pioneering innocence advocate Daniel Medwed argues that our justice system's stringent procedural rules are to blame for the ongoing punishment of the innocent. Every state gives criminal defendants just one opportunity to appeal their convictions to a higher court. Afterward, the wrongfully accused can pursue various post-conviction remedies, but all too often they fall short in leading to exoneration. Because of narrow guidelines and deferential attitudes toward lower courts, higher courts tend to uphold convictions, even when there is compelling evidence of a miscarriage of justice. And although the executive branch holds the power to release people who are in custody, it exercises this power sparingly and views with intense suspicion those who insist upon their innocence. The result is that a startling number of people are incarcerated for crimes they didn't commit; highly-publicized death-row exonerations are just the tip of the iceberg. The regime is stacked against the innocent, Medwed concludes, and the appellate and post-conviction process must be entirely overhauled. Through heart-wrenching real-life stories, alongside accessible descriptions of complex legal procedures, Barred exposes how our legal system perpetuates gross injustice and issues a powerful call for change.

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