by Radha Natarajan
The sudden loss of Chief Justice Ralph Gants shook this community, even in a year when we faced a deluge of losses. The number of people affected by the news and the outpouring of stories about his impact underscore the many dimensions of his work, commitments, and leadership. While there is so much I could say about Chief Justice Gants – including his kindness, accessibility, and humor – I want to focus here on his approach to correcting and preventing wrongful convictions. Specifically, Chief Justice Gants should be remembered not only for what causes he chose to champion but how he pursued change.
Eyewitness Misidentifications & Wrongful Convictions
Moved by stories of exonerations, such as that of Bobby Joe Leaster in Boston, Chief Justice Gants was troubled by the number of wrongful convictions caused by eyewitness misidentifications. Almost a decade ago (even before he was Chief Justice), he referenced the now-well-known statistic that over 70% of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA evidence involved at least one mistaken eyewitness identification.
Chief Justice Gants recognized that making progress toward reducing wrongful convictions caused by eyewitness misidentifications was more complicated than the Supreme Judicial Court simply setting down new rules. Real change would necessitate a diverse set of stakeholders, rigorous study, and ultimately consensus recommendations. He appreciated, probably because of his own humility, that even the seemingly awesome power of the Court was insufficient to initiate and sustain the kind of changes that were necessary to tackle such a complex issue. The creation of the Study Group on Eyewitness Identifications (Study Group) followed.
Through the Study Group, then-Justice Gants brought together people in traditionally adversarial roles to undertake research, come to a common understanding, and develop guidance for the Court. This two-year voluntary undertaking by judges, prosecutors, police officers, defense attorneys, and researchers led to a Report with consensus recommendations. The recommendations were comprehensive, addressing everything from techniques to interviewing witnesses without contaminating memory, to administering non-suggestive identification procedures, assessing an identification’s reliability, determining its admissibility, and considering what information jurors required for the adequate evaluation of identification evidence. Justice Gants then sought public comment on the Report, again ensuring that various perspectives were involved and heard. Like other reports or endeavors he directed, Justice Gants had no intention of leaving this Report on a shelf to collect dust. To the contrary, Chief Justice Gants took the Report’s findings and implications seriously: he diligently studied the research referenced, carefully considered its recommendations as well as the public comments, and then used the Report to guide the Court’s approach to addressing eyewitness identification cases in the future.
Chief Justice Gants was committed to following where the evidence took him, even if it meant that there needed to be a radical shift in the law. This commitment was especially important in this area because, as he often said, the law had previously been guided by misconceptions or “common sense” that was at odds with scientific study. As a result, Massachusetts became a national leader in its approach to eyewitness identification evidence. He spoke often at conferences about the changes heralded by the creation of the Study Group. He was proud that the process involved so many people, recommended such transformational changes, and had the potential to avert the injustice of wrongful convictions. He had hoped that the Study Group would not only impact real people, and prevent tragedies like what happened to Bobby Joe Leaster, but that the process could be replicated to tackle other seemingly intractable issues within the criminal legal system. In short, it represented the culmination of so many of his deeply held values.
Tried & True
The Study Group was not the only example of how Chief Justice Gants chose to tackle issues of injustice. He believed that bringing people together toward a common understanding, based on diligent research and data, was necessary for change. He understood that education was an essential, but not sufficient, part of the process. It is why he held a mandatory implicit bias training for the judiciary, why he commissioned Harvard’s Criminal Justice Policy Program to undertake an in-depth study on the stark racial disparities found in the Massachusetts criminal legal system, and why he tasked a Standing Committee to develop science-based jury instructions on implicit bias. In each instance, he brought people together to study carefully and thoughtfully the issues that required the most significant changes, and in each instance, it was meant to be only a starting point. He did not want to push people to accept change; he wanted to bring people along until there was momentum behind change.
Chief Justice Gants was committed not only to raising the awareness of, and bringing evidence and data to, the bench or bar generally; he was committed to learning himself. For example, in 2018, he accepted an invitation to attend a dinner of faculty who had recently presented at a New England Innocence Project Litigation conference. The faculty included judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, scientists, and “innocence advocates.” Despite suffering from a recent concussion, Chief Justice Gants attended the gathering and gave a few remarks, mostly to emphasize his commitment to correcting and preventing wrongful convictions. He also expressed his gratitude to the faculty for creating such an incredible opportunity to hear from so many people who, despite playing adversarial roles in litigation, had come together for this purpose. The rest of the night he spent listening, one by one, to what everyone had to say and to our ideas for creating meaningful change. Subjects ranged from the more mundane evidentiary questions to the profound areas of judicial culture and finality. And last year, when the New England Innocence Project held an event at which exonerated men and family members told stories about the impact of their wrongful convictions, Chief Justice Gants came to listen then too. He never tired of learning.
Chief Justice Gants believed that change was possible by bringing people together, having them learn together, and asking them to build toward consensus. In that way, he was a great leader because transformational change did not depend on him alone. It was his inspiration and vision, more than his position, that laid the foundation for these efforts, and there are others who share that same commitment. What Chief Justice Gants started does not need to end with his passing; that was the true genius of his process and the true measure of his humility. We must sustain and continue the things he started, and with him in mind, we must do them together.
Radha Natarajan is the Executive Director of the New England Innocence Project (NEIP), an organization whose mission includes correcting and preventing wrongful convictions and supporting exonerees upon release. Prior to joining NEIP in 2015, Radha spent twelve years as a public defender, most recently at the Roxbury Defenders. She teaches a seminar on Wrongful Convictions at Boston University School of Law.