Orwell's Elephant and the Etiology of Wrongful Convictions

30 Pages Posted: 2 Jan 2016 Last revised: 21 Jul 2018

Date Written: January 1, 2016


This article applies to wrongful convictions a general etiology, or manner of causation, frequently employed in aviation, medicine, and other safety-oriented, endeavors to analyze adverse outcomes and “near misses.” This “organizational accident” approach assumes that no event has a single cause but that small mistakes (none independently sufficient to cause the disaster) interact with each other and with latent system weaknesses to bring about the result. In this view the answer to “Who is responsible?” includes everyone involved to one degree or another, and “everyone” includes actors far from the scene responsible for budgets, training, legal architecture and other elements shaping the frontline environment.

By using George Orwell’s essay “Shooting An Elephant” the article attempts to show how even an event such as a wrongful conviction following prosecutorial withholding of exculpatory evidence that is generally seen as involving only an individual’s moral failure, can in fact implicate numerous other system considerations. The wider lens that the organizational accident etiology provides is used to suggest how the general relationship of criminal justice to local minority populations can play a causal role, and how a “non-blaming, all-stakeholders” approach to forward-looking accountability might begin to improve that relationship and prevent future errors.

Keywords: wrongful convictions, sentinel events, criminal justice reform, criminal procedure, race in criminal justice

JEL Classification: K42

Suggested Citation

Doyle, James M, Orwell's Elephant and the Etiology of Wrongful Convictions (January 1, 2016). Albany Law Review 2016, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2709967

James M Doyle (Contact Author)

Bassil & Budreau ( email )

20 Park Plaza
Suite 1005
Boston, MA 021116
United States

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