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Innocence project will review claims of wrongful conviction

13 February 2016

Not Guilty: the Sydney Exoneration Project will see law and psychology students receive course credit to review cases with experts in forensic psychology and evidence.

A new innocence project at the University of Sydney will combine forensic psychology with legal expertise to investigate claims of wrongful conviction.

Undergraduate and postgraduate students in psychology and law can now apply to be supervised to review cases for individuals who have cleared a rigorous application process to have their conviction assessed. 

“Not Guilty: The Sydney Exoneration Project ultimately seeks social justice for those in need,” said Dr Celine Van Golde, its founder and director.

“Research shows eyewitness misidentification is by far the key cause of wrongful convictions, while other contributing factors can include false memories, false confessions, and laboratory error. The Sydney Exoneration Project applies forensic psychological research into memory and testimony to investigate these issues,” said Dr Van Golde.

In the United States researchers estimate between 0.5 to five per cent of American convictions are recorded against innocent individuals.

However, there is currently no reliable national data on the prevalence of wrongful convictions across Australia. Without an independent body mandated with powers and resources to investigate wrongful convictions, they can be difficult to identify.

“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,” said Associate Professor of Evidence and Proof and Sydney Exoneration Project supervisor, David Hamer.

A man's hands cuffed on a table. Image: iStock

Without devoted resources and powers, wrongful convictions can be difficult to identify and even harder to correct. Image: iStock

In Britain, 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 around 20 miscarriages of justice a year. 

Between 2007 and 2014 NSW had a DNA review panel, which 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,” said Associate Professor Hamer.

The Sydney Exoneration Project will consider cases where no DNA evidence is available, but where other evidence, such as eyewitness error and false confessions, can verify a person’s innocence.

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

Research into the outcomes of long-term incarceration on innocent individuals has identified negative health effects such as PTSD, depression and alcohol and substance dependence.