Monday, February 02, 2009

The Most Human of Errors

Usually when a plane crashes, or there is some other type of accident, we hear a lot about "human error." About how the weak link in the chain wasn't some piece of equipment or complex mechanical system, but the chump at the controls. In most cases, the error a question is a mistake, not an intentional act. It has the air of tragedy, not criminality.

Is say all that as an introduction to this story in yesterday's New York Times (via TalkLeft):

A new examination of wrongful convictions in New York City and around the state found that a number of them stemmed not from DNA evidence being used to prove someone’s innocence, but from a far older phenomenon: human error.

The report, released on Friday by the New York State Bar Association, studied the cases of 53 men and women whose convictions were overturned, often after spending years, sometimes decades, in prison for murders, rapes and other crimes they did not commit.
But here's the thing - they're using a very broad definition of "human error." One that includes any human action, regardless of intent or motivation. That doesn't really fit for some of the instances cataloged:
Betty Tyson spent 25 years in prison before her murder conviction was overturned in 1998. She was convicted of strangling a Philadelphia businessman in Rochester in 1973, largely as a result of the testimony of two teenagers who said they had seen her with the victim.

One of the teenagers later recanted his account, and a police report of an interview with the other teenager, in which the witness said he did not see Ms. Tyson with the victim, was suppressed by the police and never given to her lawyers at the time of the trial, according to the report and news accounts.

James Walker was convicted in 1971 of murdering an armored car driver in Brooklyn, based on the testimony of an informant. But the report stated that the prosecutor and the lead detective in the case suppressed the fact that the informant had actually implicated a second man and that a surviving victim had seen Mr. Walker in a lineup but selected another person. Mr. Walker served 19 years in prison and was freed in 1990.
Notice anything about those two anecdotes? They are not cases of accident or negligence. They are cases of police misconduct. That's not tragic, that's criminal, and those responsible should be treated accordingly.

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