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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2003




Boston University School of Law




Like many other states, Massachusetts has recently known a number of acknowledged miscarriages of justice. This article examines one of them, the Marvin Mitchell case, in order to ask two questions: "What went wrong?" and "What systemic reforms might have prevented this injustice?" In seeking ideas for reform, we look to English law.

In 1990 Marvin Mitchell was convicted of rape in Massachusetts. Seven years later he became the first Massachusetts prisoner to be exonerated by DNA testing. In this article we describe the two key factors leading to Mitchell's wrongful conviction: faulty eyewitness identification procedures, and inadequate safeguards surrounding the recording and disclosure of Mitchell's allegedly incriminating statements to the police. We then ask how English prosecutors and courts would have responded to a police investigation conducted in the same way as Massachusetts police handled Mitchell's case. After describing the English safeguards applicable to eyewitness identification procedures and to the taking of suspects' statements to the police, we conclude that the investigatory flaws in Mitchell's case would have led to a radically different result in England: it is unlikely that Mitchell would even have been prosecuted, let alone convicted, for the crime with which he was charged.

In view of the fact that a number of Massachusetts miscarriages of justice have resulted from unreliable eyewitness identification procedures, and from eleventh-hour revelations of previously undisclosed incriminating statements by defendants, we argue that Massachusetts should consider adopting stronger safeguards to protect the innocent from police error or abuse. In doing so, the state should look to English experience for plausible models.

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