As a former prosecutor, I'm all too familiar with the unfortunate phenomenon of tunnel vision in our criminal justice system. While reviewing police reports submitted for filing criminal charges, I was surprised at how often the police jumped to conclusions in an investigation.
I started to see it so often that I was no longer surprised. Acting on these hunches, without taking a moment to consider other explanations and motivations, has the effect of "tunnel vision" where the only evidence the police collect and preserve points to their original hunch. Other evidence and leads are often simply ignored. Most of the time this approach still yields the correct result, because more often than not, the simple explanation is the correct one. And that makes it easier, over time, to jump to conclusions and ignore alternate explanations. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in an innocent person incarcerated and convicted while the real criminal goes unpunished.
AN ALIBI IGNORED
On January 13, 1999, high school athlete Hae Min Lee didn’t show up to pick up her cousin in Baltimore, Maryland. The eighteen-year-old Korean immigrant was reported missing by her family. Her strangled body was found in nearby Leakin Park on February 9th. Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, was tried for the crime and found guilty of first degree murder. His sentence was life plus thirty years.
These are the facts of the case. The reality, however, is much murkier. Questions over the reliability of cell phone records, the prosecutor’s decision not to listen to the alibi provided by Asia McClain, who was with Syed when Hae Min was killed, and questions of his attorney’s competence were enough to grant Syed the possibility of an appeal.
Adnan Syed, the de facto star of Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial, is only one of many imprisoned because of police tunnel vision, or the inability of police and prosecutors to discount an early piece of evidence or even a hunch and look at all the facts of the case.
THE BAD GUYS GO FREE
Tunnel vision in law enforcement is little more than jumping to conclusions. Often, these conclusions are correct, which has the unfortunate outcome of reinforcing a bad habit. But when the hunches are wrong, evidence is ignored and innocent people end up punished.
And the bad guy goes free. Dr. Kim Rossmo, Director of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation, shows that tunnel vision and bad policing can lead to up to 16 murders unsolved daily, or almost 6000 in the course of a year.
A MONSTER’S BLOODY BANDANA
The Morton Family, shortly before Christina’s murder
Take Michael Morton, who spent 25 years of his life in prison for the killing of his wife before being exonerated by DNA evidence.
In August 1986, a neighbor noticed 3-year-old Eric Morton wandering alone outside his house. Concerned, she went inside and found Christina on the bed. She had been beaten to death. Police found a note that Michael had written his wife the night before she died. In it, he said he felt unwanted, but didn’t want to fight about it again. Police seized on this and noticed that there had been no forced entry, and immediately assumed Michael was the killer.
Even when evidence began mounting up: fingerprints on the door and in the house that did not match any of the Mortons, footprints in their fenced-in yard, a neighbor’s report of a strange man in a green van, a blood-stained bandana, and even young Eric’s insistence that he saw a ‘monster’ hit his mother and break the bed, it was ignored in favor of a domestic dispute.
FREED FROM RAPE CHARGES, NOW BRANDED A MURDERER
Steven Avery, the subject of the Netflix hit documentary Making a Murderer is perhaps the most famous victim of tunnel vision, and his case is still unfolding. In 1985, Avery, who had a long list of run-ins with the law, was convicted of first degree sexual assault and attempted murder for an attack on Penny Beerntsen. He served 18 years in prison before being freed by DNA evidence.
But that wasn’t the end of Avery’s story. On Halloween in 2005, Avery hired photographer Teresa Harbach to take pictures of a car his sister wanted to sell. She went missing that same day. When her car was discovered in Avery’s Salvage Yard, he was charged and then convicted of her murder. Avery’s murder conviction, considered by many to be a miscarriage of justice, is the subject of the documentary. The public outcry around Avery’s conviction and imprisonment has generated two petitions and a Chicago law firm has recently taken up Avery’s case and has filed for an appeal.
A LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?
Things are slowly getting better.
Michael Morton, exonerated 25 years later.
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that helps exonerate wrongly-convicted people, had a hand in all of these cases. In both Morton and Avery’s cases, DNA proved without a doubt they did not commit the crimes they were sent to prison for. The Innocence Project also plans to look at Syed’s case, and is waiting to hear if they can proceed with DNA testing while the case is being appealed. Michael Morton was freed after he spent more than two decades in prison. Adnan Syed and Steven Avery are still waiting. The problem with tunnel vision extends far beyond these three famous cases, and the Innocence Project is also trying to reform the way police and prosecutors look at cases. The list of people freed by the Innocence Project is impressive.
People are becoming aware of the dangers of tunnel vision. In 2015, a record 149 convictions were overturned, 40% of them for murder. Five men were facing the death sentence. Official misconduct was quoted as the reason in a staggering 65 cases. Professor Samuel R. Gross, who founded the National Registry of Exonerations, believes this is only a small percent of those who have been wrongly convicted. He estimates that as many as four percent of all those sentenced to death are actually innocent.
And while recent Netflix hit “Making a Murderer” and the podcast “Serial” may share some of the credit, Gross believes it is a fundamental change in the way Americans think that is making the difference. “As a society, we have become much more willing to acknowledge mistakes that we’ve made,” he said.
I agree - it can’t happen soon enough.