Former U.S. Attorney General discusses wrongful convictions

There is one area that lawyers do not understand, nor do they want to, according to former Attorney General Janet Reno.

“We, as lawyers, need to understand the language of science,” she said to a group of law students and other attendees.

Reno, the first female and longest serving attorney general in U.S. history, served as a part of the Clinton administration from 1993 to 2001. She was one of three participants in a symposium on wrongful convictions held at the School of Law on Feb. 24.

“I swore up to 1972 I would never be a prosecutor,” Reno said.

She added that she had a change of heart because she discovered prosecutors can do more for the innocent than a defense attorney can, since prosecutors control who to take legal action against.

From this Reno transitioned to the topic of wrongful convictions, which she attributed, in part, to “prosecutorial tunnel-vision.”

“We must attack the issue from, ‘What can we do to prevent this in the future?'” she said. “We need to come up with reforms. I think we can make a big difference and look to the future to make in-roads [regarding] wrongful convictions.”

Reno praised Gary Wells, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, for his efforts helping to reduce wrongful convictions, namely through his book, Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement.

“It is beginning to work because Wells can talk their language,” Reno said, referring to the language of detectives.

Wells, also a participant in the symposium, followed Reno’s remarks by giving an overview of the research he has conducted and what is included in the guide.

“You can’t make these changes if the prosecutor is not on board,” Wells said.

According to Wells, it is difficult to get them on board because, in most cases around the country, prosecutors are not under a unified authority and are not a part of the process of investigating a criminal suspect, whereas as detectives are.

“Police know there’s a problem; they just didn’t know what to do,” he said. “That’s why they’re a receptive audience.”

An example of a wrongful conviction case was presented by the final speaker, Juan Melendez. Sentenced to death in 1984 for first-degree murder and armed robbery, Melendez spent 17 years on death row before being exonerated in 2001.

“I never thought that I would be convicted and sentenced to death for a crime I didn’t commit,” he said. “I was scared, very scared to die for a crime I didn’t commit.”

Melendez described his experience, detailing how his emotional state changed as time progressed. He recounted his contemplation of suicide and how close he came to ending his life.

“After 10 years I was tired of it,” he said. “I wanted out.”

Eventually, Melendez was able to move his case to Hillsborough County. The new judge, in light of the discovery of a taped confession by the actual murderer and testimony by his relatives, ordered a new trial. Due to the amount of exculpatory evidence, the prosecutor decided not to pursue the case and Melendez was freed.

Lindsay Leshin, law student, said it was very moving to hear Melendez speak.

“I think more people should hear what was said,” she said. “It was interesting to hear the human perspective of it and the more scientific perspective together at the same time”

Greg Linch can be contacted at