A number of recent books on wrongful convictions have become very popular and were #1 New York Times Bestsellers. In his fi rst attempt at nonfi ction, popular legal thriller and crime author John Grisham wrote The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town (2006). His book told the story of Ron Williamson, who was sentenced to death and released 11 years later for a crime he didn’t com- mit. More recently, in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption , Bryan Stevenson shares the deeply moving work he has done to help free the wrongfully accused, particularly for those defendants sentenced to death. Although Stevenson discusses various issues within the American criminal justice system throughout his book, he focuses the book around the case of Walter McMillian, a black man who was sentenced to death for a murder in Alabama that he didn’t commit. Both of these incredibly popular and bestselling books suggest that the American public is interested in this topic and wish to learn more about injustices within our justice system.
The increase in the use of social media as a platform to disseminate information on issues of crime and justice may also impact public opinion. Advocacy groups such as The Innocence Project (both the national organization as well as numerous regional affi liates) have hundreds of thousands of follow- ers on Facebook who are both viewing and sharing their posted stories with others. There is also the emergence and growing popularity of internet podcasts. Along with the growth of this type of media, there are now a number of popular podcasts that focus on the topics of wrongful convictions and innocence in the criminal justice system. Numerous new podcasts on the topic arose, including “Actual Innocence” and “Wrongful Conviction.” The host of “Wrongful Conviction,” Jason Flom, a founding member of the Innocence Project, interviews men and women who were wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit (of which many were sentenced to death). In the podcasts, Flom allows these victims of injustice to share their stories, many of whom seek to educate the public on wrongful convictions and the impact it has on the wrongfully accused, their families, and society. Likewise the popularity of the podcast “Serial,” which told the story of Adnan Sayand, a teenager convicted of murdering his girlfriend in Maryland, is arguably one of the most popular podcasts to date, with each episode being downloaded more than 3 million times (Roberts, 2014). “Serial” and the related podcasts “Undisclosed” and “Truth & Justice” all lend evidence to suggest that the public is extremely intrigued by information suggesting that people are being wrongfully convicted in our justice system.
Overall, these examples serve to support the idea that the media framework on innocence and wrongful convictions has changed. There is no doubt that there is more media coverage on this issue and that the public is interested in reading, viewing, and listening to more information about innocence and wrongful convictions. Researchers, however, are only in the beginning stages of exam- ining the infl uence that information on innocence has on public opinion and support for capital punishment.
Talia Roitberg Harmon and Diana Falco
Public Opinion and Innocence