Tricia Bushnell ’04 is the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project (MIP), a nonprofit legal organization that represents people convicted of crimes they did not commit and which also supports policies to prevent wrongful convictions. MIP estimates that 2 to 7 percent of all inmates in America are innocent of the crimes for which they’re convicted, which translates to 2,000 to 7,000 innocent people behind bars in the five states MIP covers. MIP was able to “welcome home” two of those people last year. Bushnell told Bucknell Magazine why she has been with MIP for 5 years and what everyone should know about innocence and the American criminal justice system.
Q: How did you end up doing this work?
A: I was the first in my family to go to college — where I majored in German and political science — and entered my last year of law school planning to take a law firm job near my family in southern California. But my last semester, I did a legal clinic in Alabama with the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by my professor Bryan Stevenson.
I was working on the case of Emanuel Gissendanner who had been convicted of the murder of an elderly woman. By all accounts he looked very guilty. There was a speck of the victim’s blood on his sock, he had driven around in her car all day, and he had cashed a check from her bank account. We thought we would be working to get him life without parole. But as my clinic partner and I started investigating, we found that another man had pawned the car to Emanuel [the speck of blood was already on the car when Gissendanner claimed it]. The body was covered in thick, professionally cut tree branches, and the other man was a tree trimmer who had worked on the victim’s house.
It was a glaring moment of going into a case thinking I knew everything, because everything looks terrible, and you just believe it.
Q: What are the top causes of wrongful convictions?
A: Eyewitness identification was a leading cause in over 70 percent of exonerations. We’re really bad at identifying what happened, and we’re suggestible. For example, if a person giving me a photo line-up knows who the suspect is, they may, perhaps not intentionally, encourage me to pick that person. Or photo arrays may not meet the standards for what social science says is an unbiased array. We can fix that.
Flawed forensics are also a common cause. For example, taking a hair at the crime scene and comparing it to a hair on a suspect’s head: People used to look at those under microscopes and say, “They match; it must have come from that person to the exclusion of all other people.” That is not grounded in science, and the FBI now agrees that it’s not. In a review of just its own files, the FBI found a 93 percent error rate in court testimony.
Q: What’s the best way for everyday citizens to help prevent wrongful convictions?
A: The No. 1 thing you can do is to know your prosecutors. The leading cause of wrongful convictions for those exonerated in 2017 was prosecutorial and state misconduct. Almost all prosecutors are elected. Actually, while at Bucknell I worked in the Union County District Attorney’s Office and he was a great prosecutor who believed in justice. But most people don’t know enough about their prosecutor to be able to say the same. Your prosecutor decides who gets charged, and they also control what legislation gets passed.
Do we want to incarcerate people at the rate that we’re incarcerating them? How do we decide what is smart justice and make the changes that we all need? It’s really about asking what you really want in society, paying attention to that and making those elections.