Book Review : Actual Innocence

Actual Innocence : by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer, Doubleday, New York, New York, 2000. Imagine what it would be like to be convicted of a brutal murder and then sentenced to die by lethal injection. Imagine languishing on death row for years as appeal after appeal is turned down.

Imagine, within days of your scheduled execution, you are moved to a holding area near the prison’s death chamber and asked to provide a list of five people who will be allowed to visit. Imagine being told that a form will be sent to one of your relatives, asking what the funeral home should do with your body. Now, imagine this—you are innocent!

Actual Innocence by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer explores the science of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analysis and examines its importance not only as a crime-fighting tool but as a truth-finding tool that has assisted in winning the freedom of dozens of people who were wrongfully convicted of crimes that they never committed.

To begin, Actual Innocence provides the reader with a forensic history of DNA analysis. It explores its infancy when it was first used successfully in England to assist in solving two brutal murders, to its eventual refinement by a California researcher, and, finally, to its everyday use by law enforcement agencies around the world.

The body of Actual Innocence, by way of the authors’ Innocence Project, explores several cases involving people convicted of crimes that they did not commit. Through exhaustive research and painstaking detail, the authors describe the crimes committed, the investigations that followed, and the factors that led to the wrongful convictions. The authors then explain how they reexamined these cases, with the assistance of DNA analysis, and eventually won the release of those wrongfully convicted. Each chapter is punctuated with personal interviews that allow the reader to relive the experiences of the innocent as they served their sentences in a prison cell or awaited execution on death row.

In one particularly poignant chapter, the authors tell the story of the criminal investigation that landed Ron Williamson on Oklahoma’s death row for a murder he never committed. The authors accentuate Williamson’s ordeal by providing a detailed description of his life on death row, specifically describing his mental and physical anguish as he anticipated his impending execution.

In Actual Innocence, the authors also examine the various law enforcement techniques that ultimately contributed to their defendants’ wrongful convictions. Traditional investigative techniques, such as photo and station line-ups, confessions, informant information, and forensic science examinations, are explored and scrutinized. The authors’ critiques of these techniques allow the reader to understand that even when used correctly, these techniques are not always perfect.

The authors added a poignant touch at the end of Actual Innocence by providing postincar-ceration interviews of some of the people who were released from their prison sentences through the Innocence Project. Through these candid interviews, the reader learns about the personal struggles and hardships innocent people are forced to deal with as a result of being wrongfully convicted.

In Actual Innocence, the authors have created an excellent thought-provoking book. It not only takes a hard look at the crime fighting science of DNA analysis but also enables the reader to realize that when society allows truth to be sacrificed in the name of justice, its government becomes not a guardian of law and order, but a tool of oppression.

Reviewed by Special Agent Stanley B. Burke Law Enforcement Ethics Unit FBI Academy, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin May 2002

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