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Surprising Lessons on Wrongful Convictions

Exoneree Daniel Taylor visits Evanston Township High School class

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Judy Royal, staff attorney with Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC), had brought Taylor with her for the class presentation that was part of ETHS’s Senior Studies’ Crime and Punishment unit.

After Taylor left the class, Royal asked the students to describe his physical traits.

Descriptions of Taylor varied wildly. Estimations ranged from 140 to 250 pounds for his weight, from 20 to 42 for his age and from 5'6" to 6'5" for his height. Furthermore, students did not accurately identify the sports team logo he had on his cap.

Later with Taylor present, Royal went over his actual physical traits. The students learned an important first-hand lesson about the leading cause of wrongful convictions
-- erroneous eyewitness identification.

“Their jaws dropped,” Royal said. “The students had been so enthusiastic and confident that they had accurately described Daniel.”

People generally greatly overestimate the accuracy of their memory in identifying someone, she said.

Taylor, who actually was in police custody when the crime occurred, went on to give a powerful presentation to the students about his harrowing ordeal, Royal said.

He was 17 in the mid 1990s when he was arrested and wrongfully convicted for a double murder to which he confessed but did not commit, she said.

“The students asked him questions about what prison life was like and what kept him going,” Royal said. “Daniel enjoys talking to students because he wants to educate and inspire young people.”

Royal said the public education aspect of CWC’s work is vitally important.

“These students are going to go out into the world and be jurors or they might become politicians or prosecutors. The whole ripple effect of what we do is so important.”

For the Crime and Punishment course, instructor David Allen invites community members to sit on experts panels and engage with the students. The panels help students identify a passion that could evolve into a second semester independent project. So far they have at least one student interning at the CWC starting in January.

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