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Learning from miscarriages of justice with the new European Registry of Exonerations

Why do innocent people sometimes spend years in prison? EUREX is a registry of miscarriages of justice in Europe that ultimately led to exonerations. The aim is to prevent such mistakes being made in future. One of the initiators is Leiden legal psychologist Linda Geven.

More and more cases are coming to light around the world in which, after years of proceedings, innocent citizens are exonerated of crimes they did not commit. This is partly due to DNA analyses, which were introduced in the 1980s and have become increasingly advanced ever since. EUREX was founded by legal psychologists from the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland: Dr Linda Geven, Dr Jenny Schell-Leugers and Dr Teresa Schneider. Why is a European database of exonerations important? ‘It is often thought that exonerations are mainly an American phenomenon’, says Leiden researcher Linda Geven. ‘But they regularly occur in Europe too. We aim to draw attention to and learn from these wrongful convictions to prevent them from happening again.’ 

Wrongful convictions have a devastating effect on the individual and they also undermine confidence in the legal system

Risks for society

The Dutch public will have heard of the Rosmalen case, for example, where the suspect was wrongly convicted of manslaughter and spent 14 years in prison before being exonerated. Wrongful convictions not only have a devastating effect on the individual and their families, the researchers are keen to emphasise, but they also undermine confidence in the legal system. And the actual perpetrators are often still walking around and therefore a risk to society. It is currently difficult to say with any certainty how common miscarriages of justice are, says researcher Jenny Schnell-Leugers from Maastricht University. ‘They already have databases in the United States that keep track of such cases but we do not yet have a good enough picture of the number of wrongful convictions in Europe.’

The legal psychologists Linda Geven (Leiden University), Teresa Schneider (Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Art en Phillips-Universität Marbure) en Jenny Schell-Leugers (Maastricht University)

Calling on people to submit cases

At its launch, the database already contains 115 exonerations from 17 European countries. Based on these cases, the researchers can present some striking figures: wrongfully convicted people spend seven years on average in prison and in 30% of these cases a false confession contributed to the original conviction. These cases are just the beginning, stresses researcher Teresa Schneider from Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Art, and Philipps-Universität Marburg.

‘It’s partly due to language barriers that we do not have a full picture of all these kinds of cases in Europe. That is why we will be making an urgent appeal at the launch: we are inviting anyone in Europe who knows of confirmed miscarriages of justice to look at the database and submit any cases that have not yet been included.’ These must be final judgments that have been overturned, leading to an official exoneration.

Causes of wrongful convictions

The three researchers are conducting research into why criminal trials can go so disastrously wrong. This can be, for instance, if an innocent suspect is pressured to make a false confession, says Geven. A confession can make eyewitnesses subsequently doubt themselves and sometimes change their testimony. And suspects sometimes deliberately make false confessions to protect someone else. This database will make it possible to conduct more targeted research into the underlying factors that lead to such tragic mistakes. A European registry of exonerations is an important step towards better justice in Europe, say the three initiators.

EUREX has been made possible with donations from the Leiden University Fund and the University Fund Limburg.

Text: Linda van Putten
Photo: Unsplash

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