Thursday, March 03, 2016

Australia: Sydney University students to investigate wrongful convictions

In as little as three months from now, a handful of Sydney university students may have enough evidence to exonerate a prisoner who claims they were wrongfully convicted.

When the academic year begins next month, a handpicked class of undergraduate students from the university's law and psychology schools will spend a semester poring over court files, police interviews, eyewitness testimonies and trial recordings for course credit.

Their efforts are part of a new initiative – the Sydney Exoneration Project – which is based at the University of Sydney and will assess Australian cases of suspected wrongful convictions through the lens of forensic psychology.
A class of undergraduate students from Sydney university's law and psychology schools will spend a semester poring over ...

A class of undergraduate students from Sydney university's law and psychology schools will spend a semester poring over court files, police interviews etc for the project. Photo: Edwina Pickles

"If a miscarriage of justice has taken place we want to right that but, the bigger picture is that we want to make changes in the legal system and address certain aspects that can be improved," founder and director of the project Dr Celine van Golde​ said.

Dr van Golde, who set up the project in March last year, said a team of legal professionals and forensic psychologists had spent several months rigorously reviewing applications from people convicted of serious crimes across Australia, before selecting one for the upcoming course.

"The cases we look are the most severe crimes. From murders to anything for which you go to jail for a long time."

Confidentiality issues prevented Dr van Golde from discussing the case that would be examined by students, but she said the applicant had contacted the project after watching a documentary on forensic psychology.

"[They] said 'this is exactly what happened in my case and said I'm innocent and wrongfully convicted'."

While innocence projects have a well-established role in the United States, where mass incarceration has resulted in extraordinary rates of wrongful convictions, the Australian criminal justice system is equally susceptible to mistakes, she said.

"We need a project like this because mistakes are being made and wrongful convictions do happen. We know that from the case studies we've seen around Australia [that] it would be ignorant to think it wouldn't happen here."

There have been a number of high profile wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations in NSW.

In November last year, Roseanne Beckett was awarded $4 million in damages by the NSW Supreme Court for her wrongful conviction of plotting to kill her husband Barry Catt​ in 1991. She served 10 years of a 12-year sentence before she was exonerated in 2001.

Alexander McLeod-Lindsay was exonerated 26 years after he was found guilty in 1965 of the attempted murder of his wife in their Sydney home. He had already served nine years in jail and had been paroled by the time new DNA analysis exonerated him.

While innocence projects typically centred around re-examining DNA evidence, Dr van Golde said the Sydney project would uniquely focus on the role of forensic psychology in wrongful convictions.

"The number one reason people are wrongfully convicted – in 72 per cent of cases – is mistaken identification. These are eyewitnesses who have identified the perpetrator but it later turns out they identified the wrong persons."

False confessions and false memories – also leading factors behind wrongful convictions – were key research topics within forensic psychology.

"That's why it's so important we involve it. That's the main aim and main focus of our project."

Original report here.   (Via Australian Politics)

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