THE BLOG
11/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Blinded by Tunnel Vision: What the Execution of Cameron Todd Willingham Can Teach Us About Wrongful Convictions

In the recent New Yorker, there is a chilling story about Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his children, even though scientific analysis established there was no evidence of arson.

When most of us read Willingham's story, we want to find a villain or conspiracy to blame. But Willingham's story points to a broader, uncomfortable truth about our criminal justice system. While the path to Willingham's wrongful execution was paved by profound incompetence and reckless disregard for human life, Texas' authorities clearly believed they had convicted and executed a guilty man.

So it is with many wrongful convictions. Even when there is compelling evidence of actual innocence, it can be almost impossible to shake a mistaken but firmly held belief in a convicted person's guilt.

Legal scholars call this phenomenon tunnel vision. It is an impulse created by institutional and psychological pressures. If unchallenged, tunnel vision can drive judges, prosecutors, jury members, and even defense attorneys to view the facts of a case through preconceived assumptions about a person's guilt or innocence, and reject or distort facts that fail to support them.

This is not meant in any way to excuse the Texas officials responsible for Willingham's death. Tunnel vision is a useful concept because it gives us a way to understand how wrongful convictions happen, to hold officials accountable for failing to challenge faulty assumptions, and to correct future miscarriages of justice.

Take, for example, the case of Juan Rivera from Lake County, Illinois. In May 2009, Rivera was convicted for the third time and sentenced to life without parole for the 1992 rape and murder of an 11-year-old Waukegan girl, Holly Staker.

While there was never any physical evidence that connected Rivera to the crime, DNA testing in 2005 definitively excluded Rivera as the source of semen found inside Staker's body.

This is the same kind of evidence that has exonerated 242 people in the United States. In fact, it is extremely rare for cases like Juan's even to go to trial.

"The vast majority of prosecutors in the United States generally are willing to walk away from a case where DNA excludes a suspect," said Joshua Marquis, a prosecutor and member of the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Association.

How was Rivera convicted? The same way Texas convicted and executed Willingham. Blinded by tunnel vision, Lake County's judicial system filtered Rivera's case through a stubborn belief in his guilt, rejecting and distorting facts that suggested he was innocent.

With no evidence to support these claims, Lake County Assistant State's Attorney Mike Mermel argued that DNA tests did not exonerate Rivera because the evidence was either contaminated, or the sperm came from a sexual partner unrelated to the crime.

Though these claims were not based in the facts of the case, good science, or the rules of evidence, Lake County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Stark allowed the jury to hear them. As a result, the jury convicted Rivera based on a deeply flawed understanding of his case.

Whether Rivera will be able to establish his innocence now depends on the Illinois Second District Appellate Court, which will decide to uphold or overturn his conviction. We can only hope that Rivera can find what Willingham couldn't: a judge or state official able to resist the tunnel vision that has clouded the facts of his case and denied him the justice he deserves.