Book Review

FalseJusticeFalse Justice: Eight Myths That Convict the Innocent
By Jim and Nancy Petro
ISBN-13: 9781607144670
Kaplan Publishing
January 2011
304 pages

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

In 2003 when Jim Petro became Ohio’s Attorney General he made DNA testing of anyone incarcerated in Ohio a goal of his administration. He had already served in a variety of political offices, was known as a staunch Republican conservative, a law and order candidate, and came into office at a time when DNA tests had become more reliable. The stunning number of cold cases solved in Ohio after Petro’s DNA-testing initiative got underway led him to changes in his views about innocence and wrongful convictions.

Attorneys general are more often aligned with those prosecuting crimes (as well as overseeing a myriad of civil matters), Petro writes, so it was quite unusual to see him leading an effort to clear the names of convicts who persisted in claiming innocence. It all started when a political ally asked him to review a case in which DNA testing showed the state had incarcerated an innocent man. When local county prosecutors dug in and refused to reconsider the case that first brought the issue to his attention, Petro took the battle to the press, earning both criticism and support for his advocacy.

As I seem to be doing more and more frequently, I read False Justice as an eBook, but it is available in hardcover for about $20-28 for those who prefer paper. A new edition is due later this July and its advance promotions promise additional web links to wrongful conviction data. The former AG coauthors this book with his wife, Nancy Petro, but it is written in the first person and in Jim Petro’s own words. I spent quite a bit of time dredging through the 300-plus page book, parts of which wander down related but not specifically on-topic paths. While they make for interesting reading, some are purely autobiographical and others like the long digression in lengthy Chapter 19 consider the death penalty in light of the statistical likelihood of a wrongful conviction.

Petro has identified eight commonly held “truths” that are anything but the truth, and cites a number of sources to show why these ideas are false.

First, the book asserts, contrary to popular belief, everyone in prison does NOT claim innocence. Investigation into cases where prisoners steadfastly refused to repudiate their claim of innocence sometimes turned up proof that not only was the wrong man in prison, but that failing to arrest and punish the real wrong doer let him go on to hurt more people, so the damages and losses were compounded.

Next, the author debunks the popular belief that the American criminal justice system rarely convicts an innocent defendant of a crime they did not commit, asserting that thousands of innocent people are punished due to misidentification by witnesses, lies told at trial by a snitch, or after making a false confession in hopes of lenient sentencing or other promises held out by investigators. “There are many more innocent people in prison than most Americans believe,” Petro alleges.

DNA has been the basis for most of the noteworthy conviction reversals, he reports. “Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases–an estimated 90 percent or more of all criminal convictions–there is no biological evidence.” He expresses surprise that so few citizens are concerned about innocent people serving prison sentences and sometimes facing death penalties. He exclaims, “The error rate in the justice system–whether the most conservative or the most liberal calculation–would not be even remotely tolerated in the U.S. food industry or the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, for example. Why we have accepted it in the justice system is another question.”

In a later chapter, Petro uncovers intentional abuses that lead to wrongful convictions, with a lot of attention given to the Brady v. Maryland ruling that requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. He complains that judges and appeals courts fail the innocent when they stonewall pleas for retrials because they do not believe the ultimate outcome would have been any different had full disclosure been practiced.