On Oct. 11, Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed led a discussion at Claremont McKenna’s Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum titled “Why The Innocent Can’t Get Out of Prison.” Medwed focused on combating two popular myths: first, that America’s criminal justice system may not be perfect but is the best out there, and second, prisoners have access to endless appeals, some of which allow people to get off on technicalities.
Through the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals, Medwed has led legal appeals to assist innocent incarcerated people in securing justice. He is currently working with Marcie Gardner, CMC’s Deputy General Counsel and chief legal officer, to develop a relationship between the Innocence Project and CMC. They are also creating a course about wrongful convictions which they hope will be offered in the spring of 2024.
During his talk, Medwed walked the audience through the different possible processes of appealing a wrongful conviction.
One way is the direct appeal, which Medwed pointed out is not a constitutional right. In this process, no new evidence may be brought in, and defendants may only reference the original trial. The defendant may argue that the judge abused their power. However, even if the judge made a mistake, the defendant is not free. They must instead prove that the judge’s action was an abuse of power.
Additionally, if the defendant’s original lawyer made a mistake or was negligent, the defendant must prove that this mistake was impactful on their case and not a “harmless error.”
Medwed argued that the “[direct] appeal is devalued in our criminal justice system” and that “trial is the main event, the [direct] appeal is the undercard.”
Another appeal involves the habeas corpus approach, which can only be applied if the defendant proves there have been constitutional or judicial errors. The defendant challenges the legality of the application of federal laws that were used to convict them.
Medwed also mentioned a method where a defendant’s legal team must convince the original judge to reopen the case on the basis of new evidence, called the Writ of Coram Vobis.
However, Medwed said that the “courts have developed a narrow definition of new evidence.”
Medwed posed a question to the audience: “Do you think that the judge is going to be psychologically disposed to new evidence?”
He went on to explain how confirmation bias would discourage a judge from reopening a case, saying, “you discount evidence that comes against it, you over-value evidence that supports it.”
Medwed described the judiciary’s perspective on this issue as “not our problem.” He said some believe that this issue is best figured out by the executive branch, citing the power to pardon in the Constitution.
Although the governor has the power to grant clemency, this does not work in favor of the incarcerated innocent as prisoners are “statistically more likely to get clemency if [their] motives are understandable,” Medwed said.
So, if a prisoner is maintaining their innocence, they are unable to be granted clemency as they are seen as someone in denial and not rehabilitated.
Medwed said he has “long thought undergrads are an under-utilized resource” in the issue of appealing wrongful convictions. He ended his speech citing everyone’s responsibility to help find the innocent incarnated and bring them to justice. He urged his audience to register for his upcoming course and to “help me, however you see fit.”
Students who attended the talk said they were impacted by what Medwed shared and that it shifted some of their understanding of the U.S. criminal justice system.
“I knew that the system was flawed, but I didn’t realize it’s that flawed in the sense that people have all this evidence that works in their favor yet they are still imprisoned,” Talin Tyvand CM ’27 said after attending the talk.
Kendall Kozlowski CM ’27 said they are considering pursuing criminal law and want to take the course Medwed and Gardner are crafting because “there are so many things that need fixing in the criminal justice system.”
Asia Best CM ’27 described the lecture as one of the best Ath talks she’s been to.
“A lot of innocent people are kept in jail because their appeals are never met, and that’s both frustrating to me and also a little bit scary too, because that means that any of us can be convicted for a crime that we did not commit,” Best said.