Advanced Criminal Law: Convicting the Innocent
Professor James R. Elkins College of Law
West Virginia University|Fall|2016|





Course Syllabus

Convicting the Innocent is part of an on-going series of courses offered under the generic course title--Advanced Criminal Law. This series of courses includes:

West Virginia Homicide Jury Instructions

Prosecutorial Misconduct

West Memphis 3: A Case Study

Jeffrey McDonald Murder Case: A Case Study

Criminal Film Documentaries.

Convicting the Innocent will focus on cases in which defendants have been wrongly convicted. In recent years, more than 300 incarcerated criminal defendants have been exonerated of their crimes, many of them through the use of DNA evidence. With the study of the DNA exoneration cases, we have an opportunity to study -- to see -- the criminal justice system in an entirely different way. We have always had criminal cases in which defendants secured reversal of their convictions based on erroneous or wrongful decisions (either by judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, or the jury itself in instances in which the conviction is overturned on the basis of insufficient evidence to support the conviction). In the twenty-four year history of the modern-era exoneration cases, we now have a collection of cases that allow us to do a conviction post-mortem. Defendants in exoneration cases have, in most instances, been declared factually innocent. Consequently, in these cases we know there has been a serious miscarriage of justice, and that the defendant, as a result of not just ordinary human failing and negligence, but of serious malfeasance, has spent years, in some cases decades, in prison for a crime that he or she did not commit.

The exoneration cases -- cases in which the innocent have been convicted -- we have an opportunity to conduct, in case after case, autopsies of injustice. In Convicting the Innocent, I want to present the faces, voices, and stories of those who have been wrongfully convicted. I want you to see, feel, and experience -- to the extent possible -- the horror of being wrongfully accused and then suffering the injustice of having one's freedom stripped and their life destroyed by sloppy police investigations, heavy-handed police interrogations, police/prosecutor "tunnel vision," coerced and false confessions, prosecutors use of jail house snitch and informant testimony, various forms of prosecutorial misconduct, over reliance on eyewitness testimony, and ineffectual and bad lawyering. The contributing and causal factors in wrong convictions is now well-known. The question is whether we will do anything about fixing a system that continues to manufacture horrendous forms of injustice.

In Convicting the Innocent, we will focus on specific cases of wrongful conviction. I have (with some few exceptions) selected cases in which the case has been the subject of a documentary film (or other significant video documentation) and the case is the subject of, or featured prominently in a book. Our focus in class will be screening the documentary film (and/or the video work on the case). For each case study, you will find varied assigned reading including journalistic accounts, law review articles (mercifully few in number), court filings, judicial opinions. You will also find, in conjunction with the case studies, that I have collected supplemental videos and other web resources that provide additional material on the cases.

Course Evaluation: Your work in the course will be based on a "course paper" in which you layout and describe your work in (and for) the course. Some part, if not all, of your course paper should be devoted to an overview of the problems you find presented in the case studies. You are invited to select a particular case study from those presented in class (or cases that you find that have not been made a part of the course), and focus a significant part of your paper on the individual case.

Given the small number of students enrolled in the class, you can, if you choose, elect to make a class presentation on the case study that you choose for more detailed examination in your course paper. If you choose to make a class presentation (e.g., 30 or 45 minutes), you will be given appropriate credit as part of your final grade for the course. I strongly recommend that the case study you select for presentation in class be a case that has been the subject of a book (a list of these cases will be provided and the books on these cases can be acquired from the instructor).


Posted: August || 2014