On Monday, Feb. 12, Peace and Conflict Studies and the McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture co-sponsored “Race, Poverty, and the Criminal Justice System: Lessons Learned From Wrongful Conviction Cases,” a lecture given by Tricia Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project. Bushnell discussed known causes of wrongful convictions, suggested policies and solutions to prevent the conviction of the innocent, and what she believes is a social obligation to change the system and prevent future instances of injustice.
According to the organization’s website, “The Midwest Innocence Project (MIP) is a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the investigation, litigation, and exoneration of wrongfully convicted men and women in our five-state region.” The program was founded in 2001 through the UMKC School of Law and is part of the National Innocence Network.
Bushnell noted that through her experiences as a lawyer and and involvement with the Midwest Innocence Project, she has seen the “best and worst of the criminal justice system,” recalling personal encounters with apparently wrongly convicted felons. She described that the criminal justice system has two primary phases: a “guilt phase” and “penalty phase,” and as the director of the Midwest Innocence Project, her job is to determine which phase may have resulted in an error. “You need to listen to people, assume their wisdom, and verify what they say,” Bushnell said.
Denis Kennedy, director of Peace and Conflict Studies at Holy Cross, knew Bushnell as a fellow undergraduate student at Bucknell University and helped organize the lecture. “We had separate conversations with the McFarland Center about an event on criminal justice and the death penalty and in Peace and Conflict Studies about race and politics in the aftermath of Charlottesville,” said Kennedy. “It made sense for us to join forces, given the extent to which race factors into legal outcomes, and we knew that several relevant courses were being offered this semester, so at least some students were already primed to consider this an important topic.”
Throughout her lecture, Bushnell emphasized that oftentimes, the U.S. Supreme Court as well as trial courts tend to value “finality over fairness.” “The U.S. Supreme Court says you don’t have a right to be free if you’re innocent,” she said. Bushnell then posed the questions, “What is justice?” and, “Who decides justice?” to the audience, claiming that because most prosecutors, defenders, and juries are comprised of “white males,” the United States justice system is biased and racially influenced. Bushnell concluded her lecture by suggesting that “all of us decide justice,” and although mistakes are inevitable, it is important to acknowledge and address them.
“I hope that attendees were able to connect the individual narratives – of people wrongfully convicted – to the structural imbalances in our criminal justice system. We assume, or at least hope, that the legal system is fair and just, and unless we’ve personally encountered the law, it’s easy to psychologically distance ourselves from the plight of others, to assume that they are to blame,” said Kennedy. “It should push us to rethink a justice system we take for granted⸺ to ask questions about why this has happened and how to prevent future injustices.”
Upcoming events sponsored by the McFarland Center can be found at: http://www.holycross.edu/faith-service/mcfarland-center-religion-ethics-and-culture/events-mcfarland-center.