LAWRENCE — The Central Park Five. Amanda Knox. Henry and Leon McCollum. Kevin Strickland.
More stories emerge seemingly every week about convicted “criminals” being exonerated.
“Wrongful convictions are not a new phenomenon. What is new is the volume of media attention to the topic. As such, more people hear about them and discuss them,” said Kevin Mullinix, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
Mullinix’s new book, “The Politics of Innocence: How Wrongful Convictions Shape Public Opinion,” argues that the adoption of policy reforms designed to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions is contingent on the ideological leaning of a state, the governor’s partisanship and the presence of innocence advocacy groups. It’s published by NYU Press.
“In addition to showing what leads to state-level policy reform, we demonstrate how media coverage of wrongful convictions changes people’s attitudes about criminal justice issues and the death penalty,” said Mullinix, who co-wrote the book with Robert Norris of George Mason University and William Hicks of Appalachian State University.
Whether it’s TV series such as “When They See Us” and “Making a Murderer,” podcasts such as “Serial” or even local news organizations covering regional cases, the media attention devoted to exonerations has undeniable impact.
“Our research suggests that when people see those stories, it makes them less confident that the justice system always gets it right. And it makes them willing to support policy changes that reduce the likelihood of these errors,” he said.
But this happens more in some environments than others.
“Addressing wrongful convictions seems like it should be apolitical and non-ideological,” Mullinix said. “It isn’t. The ways in which people think about wrongful convictions are shaped by politics and ideology. But a lot of these divisions are rooted in differences based on people’s awareness of the problem.”
The authors’ research shows that conservatives are less likely to report hearing about wrongful convictions and they believe these occur less frequently. Conservatives are also less supportive of policy reforms aimed at reducing wrongful convictions.
“We don’t see ideological differences in the rates at which people hear about wrongful convictions in entertainment-based fictional media like television shows, movies and books. However, we observe a big gap between liberals and conservatives in whether they hear true stories about wrongful convictions from their preferred news outlets,” he said.
Mullinix finds that when individuals are provided information regarding wrongful convictions, they become more concerned about the issue and more supportive of reforms. So, yes, ideology shapes people’s initial awareness of it. But once someone learns the facts, they support policy changes, regardless of whether they are liberal, moderate or conservative.
His team began working on this project in 2016. Even in just seven years, public attention to the issue has magnified dramatically.
“In 2016, the National Registry of Exonerations reported just over 1,800 verified exonerations in the U.S. since 1989. That obviously doesn’t account for every wrongful conviction — those are just the verified exonerations documented by the registry. I looked it up the other day, and it is now over 3,300,” he said.
Is there a single unifying aspect to these convictions that Mullinix sees repeatedly?
“One of the biggest threads through a lot of these cases is an overreliance on eyewitness testimony. But one of the things I find reassuring is that the justice system, law enforcement and the mass public are increasingly aware of the flaws associated with eyewitness testimony,” he said.
Mullinix, an expert in public opinion and public policy who has been at KU since 2018, has written extensively on topics involving justice policy reform. These include “The Feedback Effects of Controversial Police Use of Force,” (Political Behavior, 2020), “Framing Innocence: An Experimental Test of the Effects of Wrongful Convictions on Public Opinion” (Journal of Experimental Criminology, 2019) and “Partisanship and Support for Restricting the Civil Liberties of Suspected Terrorists” (Political Behavior, 2022).
He said one of the biggest challenges of writing the new book was the weight of the subject matter.
“It’s emotionally trying to hear these stories and see another one pop up time and again,” Mullinix said.
“There is a ripple effect for each wrongful conviction. First, there is the person who has been wrongfully convicted. Then there are the families of the victims who believed the actual perpetrator was caught and convicted – and then it is revealed they’re not. Then there are the prosecutors and law enforcement who sincerely believed they helped convict the true criminal. They must come to terms with the role they might have played in an innocent person losing years of their life. The scale and magnitude of pain and heartbreak is difficult to grasp. It takes an emotional toll to think about, but that is exactly what we should do.”
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