For a small, blue state, Massachusetts wrongfully convicts a lot of people

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In 1985, George Perrot was convicted of rape in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 2015, a Superior Court judge threw out his conviction. For all the time in between, George Perrot was in prison. Thirty years of his life. Now free, and with prosecutors signalling they won’t retry him, George Perrot is suing Springfield, the police, and the DA’s office for wrongfully convicting and imprisoning him.

Perrot’s conviction was tossed because the state relied on a once widely used and now wholly discredited form of investigative junk science known as hair microscopy. In the 1980s and 1990s, investigators would collect hair follicles from crime scenes (literally any random hair follicles they could find) and send them off to FBI “experts” for “analysis” in a hare-brained (I’M SORRY) attempt to identify the perpetrators. Problem was, all one can learn from analyzing a hair follicle to any degree of certainty is the former owner’s race, and in some cases, sex.

But this didn’t stop the FBI from pushing hair microscopy hard and employing these “experts” to testify in hundreds of trials over a 20 year period, convicting otherwise innocent people based on hair microscopy alone, including 14 who were either executed or died in prison. The FBI has since admitted the patent unreliability of hair microscopy as an investigative tool and is undertaking a review process to see just how many people were wrongfully convicted based on this shady, and often racist, practice.

Perrot’s wrongful conviction was one of the first discovered — and, if his lawyers are to be believed, one of the most egregious. Thankfully, justice seems to have finally caught up with Perrot, 30 years late and millions of dollars short. But plenty of other innocent people are still sitting in jail, waiting for someone to notice the injustice of their plight. It’s time we do just that.

For a small, progressive state, Massachusetts has an outsize record of wrongfully convicting people. The Commonwealth has paid $8.34 million to wrongfully convicted men and women since 2004, when a compensation law was enacted. From Dennis Maher to Victor Rosario to Fred Clay, it seems like every few months we’re hearing about another conviction getting overturned based on bad evidence or official misconduct. What’s going on?

Some of it is unique to Massachusetts; we are distinctly awful at public oversight of law enforcement and government in general. But it’s also an American problem: the FBI sent its hair people all over the country, and law enforcement corruption happens everywhere.

The problem runs much deeper than faulty science — it’s rooted in police and law enforcement culture. And while Massachusetts politics may be blue, we are by no means immune to regressive police and prosecutorial tactics.

In another life, I worked in the public defender’s office and as a criminal defense attorney in courts all over the state. I’ve also done innocence work. In my experience, the biggest obstacle to justice was never a mistake.

Cops, district attorneys, defense attorneys, and judges make mistakes all the time. Mistakes don’t obstruct justice. Justice is obstructed by refusing to acknowledge and rectify mistakes, and instead doubling down on and repeating them.

Law enforcement culture perpetuates this approach. The lack of official accountability for police and prosecutorial misconduct enables and emboldens both careless and bad actors. Yes, you hope most are good people doing good work — but there are too few systemic incentives to do things by the book, and too many to cut corners and let biases run wild.

These thought processes, this culture, has proven that it will not change on its own. So it must be forced to change. The truth is there are already laws on the books to prevent cops and prosecutors from misbehaving. What we really need is the political will to go all in on criminal justice reform.

There’s no magic bullet, but there are reasonable solutions. One would be to stop electing, and start appointing, district attorneys. There is no reason to mix the law enforcement and political worlds if not absolutely necessary.

Another answer would be for the state legislature to overhaul police oversight in the Commonwealth, something that is long overdue. From strengthening public records law, to establishing an independent commission to investigate all officer-involved shootings and allegations of official misconduct, the legislature is in prime position to increase transparency, accountability, and public confidence in a fair and just system.

We also need leaders with the strength to challenge the status quo, even if it costs them their jobs. As long as politicians (that includes DAs) are scared of appearing soft on crime, I predict there will be more George Perrots and more compensation payouts.

And maybe that’s just ok with us. But if it is — if locking up more than a few innocent people is the price we’re willing to pay for law and order, perceived or actual — then the extent of our cultural rot goes way beyond law enforcement.