The Confluence of Factors Doctrine: A Holistic Approach to Wrongful Convictions
30 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2018 Last revised: 16 Nov 2018
Date Written: August 7, 2018
A wrongful conviction of a factually innocent person, by definition, suggests that every piece of evidence presented in support of guilt at trial was faulty in some way—either erroneous on its face, misleading, or misinterpreted by the factfinder. Yet, trial and appellate courts have historically failed to take a holistic approach to postconviction review of innocence claims, focusing instead on a single error or a new piece of evidence in isolation, as measured against the otherwise “‘overwhelming’ evidence of guilt.” As the Innocence Movement enters its second quarter century, courts should reevaluate the way postconviction innocence claims are addressed, and favor an approach that accounts for the complex ways in which seemingly independent errors may intersect with and infect one another to generate a wrongful conviction.
Victor Rosario’s case illustrates how a cascade of errors can result in the wrongful conviction of an innocent man. A jury convicted Rosario of arson and murder in 1983 based, in large part, on eyewitness identification, forensic expert testimony regarding the alleged cause of the fire, and evidence of a confession to the crime. However, in the wake of his conviction, the Commonwealth’s evidence began to unravel, and the ways in which each faulty piece of evidence had infected the others became increasingly clear. And yet, an analysis of any one piece of challenged evidence in a vacuum—the eyewitness identification, coerced confession, or faulty fire science testimony—would have likely failed to meet the motion for new trial standard on its own.
The Rosario court ultimately adopted a new, and more holistic, approach to reviewing both trial errors and new evidence in support of factual innocence. Rather than addressing each error in isolation, the court instead looked at the confluence of factors and the likely collective impact on the jury, and determined that there was a reasonable probability that “justice may not have been done.” Here, the Supreme Judicial Court implicitly recognized that a piecemeal approach would have masked the injustice at the heart of the case, and would have failed to remedy a wrongful conviction.
While the Rosario court was notably expansive in developing its new approach to postconviction review, the court also expressly articulated that the confluence doctrine might only apply in “rare cases.” Significantly, the court did not clarify what particular circumstances might warrant this special consideration. For example, should the confluence of factors approach apply every time an innocence claim is raised? Should it apply when multiple bases for a new trial are alleged? Or, alternatively, did the Rosario court anticipate a narrower application of the doctrine? This Article argues in favor of a more expansive application of the confluence of factors approach articulated in Rosario and suggests that courts should, in the interest of justice, abandon the piecemeal analysis of individual errors in favor of this more flexible approach.
Keywords: wrongful conviction, evidence
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