The purpose of criminal law and the court system is to uphold justice.
When it becomes clear that the laws and court procedure have resulted in grave injustice, it is obvious that the legal system must be reformed.
With Wednesday’s exoneration of Christopher Tapp for the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge, we have a stark example of such an injustice. The criminal court system failed by allowing his conviction in the first place, and then failed at every opportunity to correct its error for more than two decades. Only a revolution in forensic investigative techniques (the advent of genetic genealogy), the tremendous persistence of Carol Dodge (Angie’s mother), and the extensive efforts of public defender John Thomas and multiple wrongful conviction organizations allowed the truth to finally emerge.
This injustice must be answered with a serious, sustained push for reforms to ensure this terrible error will not be repeated, and that those still languishing in prison after a wrongful conviction — Tapp is certainly not the only one — can be quickly identified and released.
A key flaw in the system was underlined by Bonneville County Prosecutor Danny Clark when, after conducting a review of the evidence in 2016, he opted not to move for a new trial.
“A defendant is presumed innocent until a jury finds him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, whereupon the presumption shifts decisively and fittingly toward guilt,” Clark wrote.
And it’s true that the presumption of guilt after a jury verdict is treated as decisive by the appellate court system. What the outcome of the Tapp case makes clear is that this shift in presumption is not at all fitting, that it allows grave injustices to stand unchecked for years.
The American system of government relies heavily on the principle of checks and balances. Congress is supposed to act as a check on the expansionist tendency of the executive branch. Trial by a jury of one’s peers acts as a check on the power of judges.
But because of the tremendous weight given to a jury verdict, there is no serious check on the fact-finding decisions of a jury. That is particularly problematic because there is ample evidence that juries are often exceptionally poor evaluators of evidence.
It is a common truism among trial lawyers that a majority of jurors make up their mind about a verdict during opening statements, that the whole trial can be won or lost right at the beginning, often with emotionally charged rhetoric. That’s significant because, at that point in the trial, no evidence at all has been presented to the jury.
The jurors who convicted Tapp evaluated the evidence before them very poorly. The evidence at the crime scene, particularly the multiple DNA samples left there, all pointed to the same man, a man who was not Tapp. In and of itself, this DNA mismatch provided strong evidence of Tapp’s innocence. If the criminal appeals system were just, this evidence alone would have led to Tapp’s release many, many years ago.
But Tapp’s jury knew that his DNA didn’t match and convicted him anyway. Because of that blunder, none of the many judges who considered Tapp’s appeals ever dealt with the DNA evidence as evidence of actual innocence. Indeed, since the evidence wasn’t new, courts were reluctant to consider it at all. As Clark said, the presumption had shifted from innocence to guilt, and the jury’s poor evaluation of the original evidence was now set in stone.
Despite a vast structure of appeals courts, there is no entity in the Idaho legal system which asks the simple question: Did the jury evaluate the evidence poorly?
Some cities and states have begun to address this flaw by instituting a check on the jury system, a new entity called a conviction review unit. Composed of forensic experts, lawyers and investigators, conviction review units focus on the strength of the evidence underlying a conviction rather than on court procedure. If all of the evidence currently known would likely not support a fresh conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, a conviction review unit can order a new trial.
Lawmakers who are committed to justice will support such a reform. It is likely to run into opposition from lobbyists for the state’s prosecutors, many of whom won’t want to revisit cases they have chalked up as victories. Lawmakers who oppose such reform will demonstrate that, to them, justice is a secondary matter.
Many other reforms should also be made.
Detective Jared Fuhriman testified under oath that Tapp provided numerous, nonpublic details of the crime which only the killer could know. The Court of Appeals stated in 2010 that this was the “crux” of the state’s case when ruling that his conviction would stand. It is now indisputable that Fuhriman’s testimony was false, but that fact may never have been uncovered if the majority of Tapp’s interrogations hadn’t been taped and preserved, allowing outside investigators to establish that police fed Tapp every detail of the crime that wound up in his confession.
Idaho does not mandate that all interrogations be taped and preserved as evidence. Lawmakers should remedy that as soon as possible. If the Tapp interrogation tapes had never been made or had been destroyed, it is very likely he would have died in prison, and Angie Dodge’s killer never would have been found.
Finally, ordinary members of the public who may be called to serve on juries should remember what happened in this case and be skeptical of the evidence presented to them. Remember that a confession without serious corroborating evidence may well be false — nearly one-third of the wrongfully convicted who have been exonerated due to DNA evidence confessed. Remember that many types of forensic evidence that were once considered rock-solid, from bite-mark analysis to fiber analysis to fingerprint analysis, have proven over time to be subjective and error-prone.
Remember that if you are called to the jury box, there is not only the risk of letting a guilty person go free. There is also the risk of condemning an innocent person, of repeating the terrible crime that was committed against Tapp.