Tunnel Vision: Causes, Effects, and Mitigation Strategies

 In Symposium

The recent spate of exonerations has alerted the public about the problem of intentional prosecutorial misconduct. However, an even more disturbing insight gained from the study of exonerations is that many of these wrongful convictions resulted from something shy of intentional misconduct. We have seen investigations that were deeply flawed by an approach in which legal actors focused solely on building a case against a specific suspect rather than conducting a thorough investigation.

In recent years, scholars have focused on “tunnel vision” as a cause of wrongful convictions. Tunnel vision is the tendency fueled by bias and pressure that leads actors in the criminal justice system to single-mindedly focus on a suspect and build a case for conviction while ignoring evidence that points away from guilt. Once it has taken hold of an individual, mere notions or assumptions are reified and become almost immovable. The consequences can be devastating—the innocent are sent to prison and the guilty remain free. Given the limits of the law in correcting tunnel vision after it occurs, educating legal actors before they become the investigators, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges who can serve as the hedge against a biased focus is crucial to minimizing the pernicious effects of tunnel vision.

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