The wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin is not an aberration. It is the result of systemic problems rooted deep within the criminal justice system. Many of these failings are connected to serious errors of judgment, often resulting from lack of objectivity, rather than out right malevolence. 1 These errors in judgment are commonplace in the criminal justice system largely because of the high levels of discretion that numerous justice system officials are afforded.
Discretion is the power to decide which rules apply to a given situation and whether or not to apply them. 2 Reiss (1974) suggests that discretionary justice exists whenever decisions made in criminal cases are not legally or practically open to re-examination. 3 As many justice system actors operate largely under the radar, their position of low visibility leaves potential for errors, whether unconscious or malicious, to go unnoticed. If these errors were simple random human errors the current state of our justice system would be a much prettier picture.
Unfortunately, these miscalculations have become routine, a product of systemic problems on the outskirts and within the criminal justice system, which inevitably foster wrongful convictions. Brutal high profile crimes, which are usually violent, have a tendency to be sensationalized by the media and spark moral panic within the community. This fear and sense of outrage among community members in turn places pressure on the criminal justice system to right wrongs by apprehending and punishing offenders both quickly and severely.
This pressure is amplified by the need for answers, retribution and eventual closure for the victim's family and friends. These external demands are often coupled with internal institutional pressure to resolve the crime as effectively and efficiently as possible. However, it is this pressure that often removes the key element of justice from the justice system, working against a proficient, comprehensive and successful police investigation. This inefficiency is then filtered throughout the prosecution process moving us further and further from serving justice and closer and closer to a wrongful conviction.
In the Case of Guy Paul Morin, the sexually motivated killing and mutilation of nine-year-old Christine Jessop sparked shock, disbelief and rage amongst the Queensville community. This community anxiety and the presence of the national media, coupled with rising belief that police were conducting an incompetent investigation, put a significant amount of pressure on the police to 'produce' a suspect. 4 This was the first nail in Guy Paul Morin's coffin. In an adversarial criminal justice system there is both a winner and a looser.
As the police have a major responsibility in building a case against the defendant it must be strong enough to secure a conviction or they will be the looser. When nobody wants to be a looser and one party has considerable power over the game, the odds are certainly not in favor of the under-dog. Those who are expected and presumed to be on the side of the law will generally take first prize, yet regrettably in this case there is no runner up. I say regrettably because when it comes to a wrongful conviction, there is more than just one looser.
As a community we all bear the consequences of putting the wrong person behind bars as only one of the harms is leaving the real criminal out on the street. Keeping this in mind gives us all the more incentive to do things right the first time. However in order to do this motivation must come from both outside and within the criminal justice system. For now we will take a look within the system to see where potential problems lie in order to illuminate prospective areas where work needs to be done to prevent wrongful convictions before they happen.
Due to both external and internal pressure on the police and other actors involved in the administration of justice to find an offender and secure a conviction, investigators have a tendency to get tunnel vision, focus on one suspect, usually a marginalized member of society, selecting and filtering evidence that will 'build a case' for their conviction, while ignoring or suppressing evidence that points towards the offenders innocence.
5 Motivation to confirm a predetermined belief in a suspect's guilt filters through other areas of the prosecution process adversely impacting witness interviews, eyewitness procedures, suspect interrogation, management of evidence and informants. Tunnel vision and its consequences was a significant contributing mechanism in securing the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin. He was a marginalized member of the community, a 'weird' young man who conveniently lived next door to Christine Jessop.
Whereas there was only the weakest bit of circumstantial evidence against him at the time, once targeted and arrested the police began to build a case against him. In the process the police disregarded at least four potential suspects, one of whom could easily have been Christine's real killer, although unfortunately at this point we will never know. Police are key players in a wrongful conviction as they are the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system.
Police are able to sustain control over the criminal process because of their positional advantage with other agents of criminal control. 6 Police have low visibility to these other agents and produce information required by them. Other justice actors must act on trust without any routine independent checks on how police have made their case. 7 Police fall prey to personal bias and often target racial minorities and those of low socio-economic status.
Police misconduct is even more unlikely to be detected or challenged if it is perpetrated against powerless members of society. Adding to this problem is the conception among police that they as a whole are doing societies 'dirty work' but receive little recognition for a job well done. This culminates in a 'we against them' mentality and a tendency for police to be secretive and suspicious of the public. Police then may feel justified in using illegal means including threats, brutality, coercion, perjury and interference with evidence in order to get a tough job done.
Furthermore, because promotion in police ranks is determined in part by the number of high-profile arrests and cases completed, an officer will be tempted into wrongdoing to secure a conviction. All of this represents an organizational culture and structure in which winnable cases are a priority, whereas the possibility for a wrongful conviction remains comfortably tucked away in very back of the officer's mind. This was certainly the case for Guy Paul Morin.
The police coerced Christine's mother to 'reconsider' her time of arrival in order to create a time frame that allowed Morin to be at the Jessop residence when Christine arrived home from school. The police additionally employed malicious lies to try and coerce Guy Paul into confessing to the crime. Admissions of guilt are not always prompted by internal knowledge of guilt but are often motivated by external influences. Interrogation of a suspect can lead to a false confession out of duress, coercion, exhaustion, fear, intoxication, diminished capacity, ignorance of the law, or mental impairment.
Investigating officers may claim that the evidence against the suspect is overwhelming and use fear of violence (threatened or performed) and threats of extreme sentences if they don't own up to what they've done, to coerce innocent people into confessing to crimes that they did not commit. A false confession to any crime is both counterintuitive and self-destructive yet continues to be a key contributing cause to wrongful convictions. One of the key elements in the 'construction' of a conviction is the police notebook.
Police are given thorough (albeit informal) training from their peers on how to compile their notes in a manner that will serve administrative requirements, while at the same time will ensure a conviction. 8 Notes are composed after a charge has been laid and discussions about the case have been conducted. This practice, termed 'boxing the notes' makes certain that no officer contradicts another, ensuring there are no inconsistencies in the notes, in turn securing evidence for a conviction.
Unfortunately, these 'constructed' notes become a contributing cause to a wrongful conviction. In the case of Guy Paul Morin the officers didn't 'box' their notes per se, Sergeant Michael Michalowsky simply created a totally new, 'revised' notebook. This was a purposeful attempt to fabricate or suppress various items of evidence, which in all probability may have cleared Guy Paul Morin. Additionally, it would seem that Sergeant Michalowsky, deliberately failed to keep the most important records required of a police investigator in charge of evidence collection.