Not Guilty: The Sydney Exoneration Project

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hand in jail

Sydney University students will be combining forensic psychology with legal expertise to investigate claims of wrongful conviction in Australian cases. This comes amid research that shows eyewitness misidentification is the key cause of wrongful convictions -- along with false memories.

Not Guilty: The Sydney Exoneration Project is looking at possible wrong convictions that have not involved DNA. According to founder and director Dr Celine van Golde, false memories, false confessions and laboratory error are all reasons why innocent people are sometimes imprisoned.

“Our project will apply forensic psychological research into memory and testimony. We have both law and psychology students going through cases, under supervision. We want to serve social justice and make sure, if there are any wrongful convictions, that an innocent person could possibly be released from gaol," Dr van Golde said.

"We also want to increase collaboration between the fields of psychology and law -- those two fields can learn a lot from each other. By letting students work together, we hope they'll take that collaboration later in their work, and make changes in forensic psychological practice.

"Around 70 percent of wrongful convictions that have been exonerations were due to mistaken identity. So that’s what we'll be looking at, as well as how it can happen. Another issue is false confessions, which is all about how people get interviewed. There are a variety of reasons why people make false confessions, it could be due to interviewing techniques and individual difference within people. For example, some people are very compliant or want to protect someone else.”

Dr van Golde told The Huffington Post Australia the problems arise when people do not give statements immediately after a crime. Problems often arise when two witnesses to the same crime, get together and talk about what they’ve seen or experienced.

“What happens is their memory can be influenced by talking to other people. So those conversations can distort their memories or they remember things that didn’t happen, or they remember things in different ways or remember different facts. You might tell a co-witness about something you saw and that person shares a story with you," she said.

"We see that often happening when two witnesses will have completely different interpretations and remember different things. But once they start talking to each other, they remember a mixture of both their memories. And that mixture of their memories and another person’s memories becomes their final statement. But dreadful mistakes can be made in that."

Doctor Celine van Golde. Picture, Sydney University

Associate Professor of Evidence and Proof, and Sydney Exoneration Project supervisor, David Hamer said while U.S. researchers estimate between 0.5 to 5 percent of American convictions are recorded against innocent individuals -- there is no reliable national data compiled in Australia.

“Wrongful convictions happen in this country. But without any real mechanism to identify and address them, Australian legal systems are left without a clear picture and means of amending miscarriages of justice," Associate Professor Hamer said.

In the UK, an independent Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has the power to send or refer a case to an appeal court, if it determines a real possibility of a quashed conviction or reduced sentence. The CCRC’s work leads to the overturning of 20 miscarriages of justice a year.

Associate Professor Hamer said a DNA review panel in NSW, between 2007 and 2014, failed to correct a single miscarriage of justice. But it operated on a far more limited basis than the CCRC. It only considered the most serious cases and could only act where there still existed evidence capable of producing a DNA profile which would clear the defendant.

"There is a clear need in Australia for bodies like the CCRC with proper powers and resources to conduct investigations into possible wrongful convictions across the board. In the absence of a proper government body, innocence projects must attempt to fill the gap."

The project will de-identify cases to protect victims and will publish its findings in scholarly journals.

Dr van Golde, who has worked on similar projects in the Netherlands, said when students start, they won't be working on the idea that the person is innocent.

"We’re going to find the facts and see if there’s anything there. That’s important because we’re not trying to be led by any ideas or be objective. If you’re not objective in cases like this, it can have a negative outcome as well. We don’t just want to show one side of the story, have to look at both if you take a scientific approach."

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