LAWRENCE — Since 1989, more than 2,800 people in the U.S. have been exonerated after being wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit.
Everyone agrees this is a serious issue, right?
“We tend to think of this as a problem that should be completely non-ideological and devoid of politics,” said Kevin Mullinix, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “But what we found is whether you’re liberal or conservative really matters for the adoption of reforms that address wrongful convictions.”
The reasons why are examined in his new research article titled “The Politics of Wrongful Conviction Legislation.” It argues that public opinion is consequential for policy reform. But adoption of such reform is contingent on the ideological leaning of the public, the competitiveness of state elections, the governor’s partisanship and the presence of innocence advocacy groups. It appears in the September issue of State Politics & Policy Quarterly.
Fundamental to this disparity in opinion is that liberals and conservatives in the mass public embrace profoundly different views about unjust imprisonment.
“They differ in their awareness of the issue and hold contrasting beliefs about the extent to which wrongful convictions are happening,” Mullinix said.
He explained how decades of data suggests that liberals and conservatives clash regarding their trust in law enforcement and the justice system. If conservatives trust the justice system to get it right, to treat people fair and to trust law enforcement, they’re not going to be thinking wrongful convictions are prevalent enough to be concerned.
For example, on one of the surveys while researching this trend, Mullinix asked, “Do you believe an innocent person has been executed in the last five years?” Liberals were 46% likely to agree; conservatives were only 24% inclined to believe the same. Similarly, another question asked, “Have you ever heard of the Innocence Project?” Liberals were 21% more likely than conservatives to be familiar with the nonprofit legal organization committed to exonerating individuals who’ve been wrongly convicted.
“If we’re debating changing all these policies concerning policing, the justice system and wrongful convictions — and some people don’t even think wrongful convictions are occurring — why would they push to change anything?” he said.
Exposure to the factual reality of this issue seems to be tied to what news sources people favor.
“Liberals are far more likely to have heard a true story about a wrongful conviction from traditional news outlets — things like TV news and The New York Times. But when we look at fictional accounts, liberals and conservatives hear about them at the same rate. So when it comes to things like Netflix and entertainment media, liberals and conservatives are more equally exposed to it,” he said.
Fortunately, once awareness is achieved, commonality can be found.
“Providing people with information shifts their attitudes, including conservatives who might not have been aware of the issue. It’s not necessarily that conservatives are opposed to these policies that address wrongful convictions, it’s that they start off with an initial trust in law enforcement and the justice system, and they’re not hearing these contrary accounts,” he said.
Co-written by William Hicks of Appalachian State University and Robert Norris of George Mason University, Mullinix's article incorporates data from all 50 states between 1989 to 2018. It investigates the adoption of five types of wrongful conviction reforms: 1) changes to eyewitness identification practices, 2) mandatory recording of interrogations, 3) the preservation of biological evidence, 4) access to postconviction DNA testing and 5) exoneree compensation.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, wrongful convictions are steadily rising. Why is that?
“I think we’re simply starting to catch them more,” he said, noting the NRE only includes exonerations starting in 1989.
“It’s also important to recognize this isn’t a new problem, as if these convictions didn’t occur prior to the 1980s. But now some states have policies where they’re preserving biological evidence longer, keeping more pieces of evidence and having access to post-conviction DNA testing. We’re seeing these numbers climb because we’re perhaps doing better at catching this stuff. We should also pause and reflect on how many potential wrongful convictions we aren’t discovering.”
Mullinix, an expert in public opinion and public policy who has been at KU since 2018, said entertainment shows such as the “Serial” podcast and various true-crime documentaries on television and streaming services actually served as the inspiration for him to tackle this topic professionally.
Previous recent articles credited to Mullinix include “The Feedback Effects of Controversial Police Use of Force,” (Political Behavior, 2020) and “Framing Innocence: An Experimental Test of the Effects of Wrongful Convictions on Public Opinion” (Journal of Experimental Criminology, 2019).
“I honestly don’t think there is a conscious bias against a lot of this wrongful conviction legislation,” he said.
“Liberals and conservatives differ in whether or not they’re even thinking about it in the first place. Because of that, it’s lower on the priority list for some people. What makes it interesting is once it gets on the agenda, it’s kind of difficult to think of an argument against some of these policies.”
Photo: Jonathan Jackson (center left) stands with Attorney General Flynt Taylor (center right) during a press conference on wrongful convictions outside a federal courthouse in Chicago in 2012. Wikimedia Commons photo.