By Andrew L. Urban.
Not Guilty: The Sydney Exoneration Project is a new psychology and law research program at The University of Sydney that reviews cases of possible wrongful convictions, founded by Dr Celine Van Golde in the Faculty of Science (Forensic Psychology).
“Our research team consists of psychology and law students supervised by academic staff. The ultimate aim of Not Guilty is to seek justice for wrongfully convicted inmates while providing a unique educational experience where students can apply the knowledge acquired during their courses. Students from the School of Psychology and Faculty of Law have the opportunity to work closely together and learn from other each other’s different, but relevant, fields. In addition to ultimately seeking social justice for those in need we hope this program will assist in forming closer collaboration between different fields and assist improvements in the legal system.”
Dr Van Golde says the Exoneration Project is open to cases from anywhere in Australia, and will work in co-operation with other ‘innocence projects’, such as the one in Queensland and the RMIT in Melbourne, “which has several cases” on the go.
“Sadly,” she says, “we already have more cases than we anticipated. It’s scary. The legal system tries to do its best, but human nature is imperfect.”
Dr Van Golde’s special areas of research are: reliability of children as eyewitnesses; eyewitness memory in children and adults; false memories in forensic context. She has published extensively.
“Research shows eyewitness misidentification is by far the key cause of wrongful convictions, while other contributing factors can include false memories, false confessions, and laboratory error. The Sydney Exoneration Project applies forensic psychological research into memory and testimony to investigate these issues,” said Dr Van Golde.
In the United States researchers estimate between 0.5 to five per cent of American convictions are recorded against innocent individuals.
However, there is currently no reliable national data on the prevalence of wrongful convictions across Australia. Without an independent body mandated with powers and resources to investigate wrongful convictions, they can be difficult to identify.
“Wrongful convictions happen in this country. But without any real mechanism to identify and address them, Australian legal systems are left without a clear picture and means of amending miscarriages of justice,” said Associate Professor of Evidence and Proof and Sydney Exoneration Project supervisor, David Hamer.