Wrongful Convictions: The Black Hole in the Legal System (55+)

Since the founding of the Innocence Project (Cardozo Law School, 1992), wrongful convictions have provided a window on the corruption, brutality and racism that pervade criminal justice systems. Understanding the causes and effects of legal malfeasance and error cuts across diverse disciplines: philosophy, law, history, psychology, sociology, science and the arts.

We’ll explore fundamental questions about wrongful convictions. What role do police and prosecutors play? Why do people falsely confess to crimes? Are wrongful convictions preventable? How can exonerated people adjust to society after prison? We’ll look at in-depth case studies, film and media analysis, and interview guests such as David McCallum, from New York, exonerated after 29 years; Steve Drizin, a renowned expert on false confessions; and Greg Hampikian, forensic scientist and founder of the Idaho Innocence Project.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the need for healthy skepticism regarding the criminal justice system.
  • Describe the roles of police, prosecution and defense in wrongful convictions. 
  • Describe the role of forensic science in both causing and righting wrongful convictions.
  • Compare true and false confessions.
  • Describe the psychological toll taken on wrongly convicted individuals and their families.
  • Discuss the role of the arts in righting wrongful convictions.

Learning methods

Learning will be experiential, immersive and interactive. There will be guest speakers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: The wrongly convicted person: Setting the foundation

We will examine the causes of wrongful convictions as they played out in David McCallum’s case and why it took years of struggle to overturn an obvious injustice. We will meet Mr. McCallum and question him about his ordeal and his life after prison. We will look at the role played by film and other media in freeing David and others. (TVO’s “David & Me”) (TED Talk: Ron Sullivan)
Guests: David McCallum of Brooklyn, NY, freed in 2014 after 29 years; Ray Klonsky, filmmaker

Week 2: The Innocence Project and the legacy of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

An exchange of ideas focusing on truth, justice, and the law and how these ideals play out in the legal system. We will look at the machinery of criminal justice (e.g. arrest, arraignment, plea bargains, trial, sentencing, parole, exoneration) and become familiar with the vital role of an innocence project.
Guest: Tamara Levy, UBC Innocence Project

Week 3: False confessions

Why do people admit to crimes they have not committed? Case study: Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay and the RCMP’s Mr. Big sting operation. (Netflix’s “The Confession Tapes: Parts 1 and 2, ‘True East’).
Guests: Atif Rafay, West Vancouver, wrongly convicted in 2004, still in prison; Steve Drizin, Pritzker School of Law, Northwestern University

Week 4: Forensic science

How do we distinguish between scientifically gathered evidence and “junk science”? What is the role of courtroom experts? How effective is the use of DNA in righting wrongful convictions? What are the uses and limitations of lie detectors and MRI’s. How credible are eyewitnesses and behavioural assessments? What can autopsies tell us about a crime? (Forensic Files: “All Butt Certain”)
Guest: Greg Hampikian, Boise State University

Week 5: Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges

How do street and courtroom interactions produce wrongful convictions? What role is played by  racism, prosecutorial misconduct and human error? What is “tunnel vision” and why does it occur? What is the role of conviction review units? What difficulties are faced by pro bono lawyers when representing the wrongly convicted?
Guest: Oscar Michelen, attorney, Cuomo LLC, New York

Week 6: Family

The David Milgaard case highlights the difficulty of sustaining relationships on the outside with incarcerated people and the obstacles faced by exonerated people re-entering the world. How can the needs of the victims of crime or bereaved family members be balanced against the needs of the wrongly convicted person?
Guests: David Milgaard, Sarah Isaacs, Loretta Fisher and David Lord.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material, and suggestions for optional further reading, will be available in class. Some course materials will be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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