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Professor George Thomas Proposes Major Changes to Flawed U.S. Criminal Justice Process

New book argues that adversarial system often fails to protect the innocent

July 30, 2008 – 
DNA has conclusively proven the innocence of hundreds of prisoners. Yet thousands, if not tens of thousands, of innocent men and women remain behind bars because no DNA evidence exists or it has not been tested. 

In his new book, The Supreme Court on Trial: How the American Justice System Sacrifices Innocent Defendants (University of Michigan Press), Professor George C. Thomas III of Rutgers School of Law–Newark argues that due process of law is most importantly about protecting innocent suspects and defendants and that the current system too often fails at protecting the innocent. Drawing on history and comparative law, particularly the French system, Thomas shows that the U.S. system is not nearly as good as it could be and offers a realistic blueprint for reform. 

George Thomas bookA prolific writer with an M.F.A. in creative writing as well as a J.D. from the University of Iowa, Professor Thomas has written an engaging book accessible to both the legal scholar and the general reader. In early chapters he examines how Western cultures, beginning with the Greeks, have historically identified those guilty of crimes. His telling of the 12th century development of trial by jury in England involves Henry II transporting an army of tiny boats across the English Channel during a powerful winter storm. By the time the book reaches the late 17th century, it shows how the British and American systems of justice had become what lawyers call an “adversarial system.” Presenting a case under that system, in which the two sides need the jury to accept their version of the truth, often obscures rather than reveals the truth, Thomas argues.

The last chapter describes several reforms – some controversial – that would protect the innocent at a reasonable cost. Thomas would, for example, create a pool of “criminal trial specialists” who would be available both to prosecute and defend criminal cases. This controversial proposal would reduce the adversarial nature of the process and make it easier for innocent defendants to prove their innocence. Other suggested reforms, such as having judges review criminal cases before trial and after conviction, are less controversial and thus more likely to be adopted.

One of the country’s most respected criminal law scholars, Thomas is the author of Double Jeopardy: The History, the Law and co-author of The Miranda Debate (with Richard Leo) and Criminal Procedure: Principles, Policies and Perspectives (with Joshua Dressler), as well as more than 50 articles. Thomas is Professor of Law and Judge Alexander P. Waugh, Sr. Distinguished Scholar at Rutgers-Newark Law School where he teaches criminal procedure and criminal law.