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Public Defenders’ Biases May Contribute to Wrongful Convictions

By Innocence Staff

According to the Innocence Project, 69 percent of DNA-based exonerees in the United States are people of color. In many of those cases, racial bias significantly contributed to those exonerees being either targeted as suspects, misidentified or being provided with inadequate counsel—all of which played roles in their wrongful convictions. Law enforcement and prosecutors often take the blame as those within the justice system most often misguided by their own inherent biases, but a piece published in the Marshall Project on Monday highlights how public defenders may harbor inherent biases towards their clients just as often as others within the criminal justice system do, preventing them from providing effective counsel.

According to the Marshall Project, defense attorneys are not immune to the racial and ethnic biases that are most often attributed to police and prosecutors, and these biases may subconsciously compel them to disregard their clients’ innocence claims and encourage guilty pleas.

“[Bias] might manifest in whether the defender believes in the guilt or innocence of the person they’re representing,” says Phoebe Haddon, chancellor of Rutgers University-Camden. “Or their assessment of their fellow counsel, the credibility of witnesses, whether to take a plea bargain.”

If defenders’ bias causes them to doubt their clients’ innocence, it could lead to them spending less time on their client’s cases. Professors Song Richardson and Philip Atiba Goff wrote in a 2013 article for the Yale Law Journal: “[Defenders] may expend more effort on cases in which they believe their client is factually innocent.”

All of these effects of implicit bias can lead to wrongful convictions.

Related: NOLA Public Defenders Ask Judge to Halt New Cases

3 Comments

  1. Audrey

    That’s because Public Defender Offices are full of young white women who cannot relate to the life experience of the people they represent. They are earnest and have the best intentions but they often fall prey to their own deeply ingrained even subconscious prejudices.

  2. Jan Rochester

    Jan Rochester Defense attorneys are people too, even tho the general public holds defenders in less esteem than used car sales persons. Believing in guilt or innocence is not the function of a defender. The function of the defender is to hold the state’s feet to the fire, to make the state prove its allegations, to pounce on faulty science, to understand the problems inherent in eyewitness testimony, to understand the difficulties of mental retardation and mental illness, to understand the difficulties of illiteracy and hopelessness and to use intelligence to bring about the best possible outcome for the client. Also it is a whole lot of fun to beat the crap out of a holier than thou prosecutor. I particularly liked the fact that the county was paying me to fight it and the state. Appealed to my strange sense of humor.

  3. Tigran Eldred

    The implicit biases that can cause public defenders to believe unconsciously in the guilt of their clients is also explored in my article, Prescriptions for Ethical Blindness: Improving Advocacy for Indigent Defendants in Criminal Cases, 65 Rutgers Law Review 333 (Winter 2012), available here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2153869.

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