Imagine this: a decade after an unsolved double murder, your estranged spouse claims that you confessed to the crimes, and you end up behind bars for nearly 40 years. Or this: your pregnant wife and two young daughters are slaughtered in your home by Manson-like intruders, seriously injuring you in the process, but you are nevertheless found guilty and are imprisoned for decades despite the fact that you steadfastly maintain your innocence.

Sadly, these cases were not invented by the likes of Scott Turow or John Grisham. They are just some of the chilling accounts of unjust convictions recently written by journalists, filmmakers, academics, and defense attorneys that call into question the integrity of the criminal justice system, and impel readers to put themselves in the shoes of the wrongfully accused and convicted.

Pulitzer Prize–winner and former Los Angeles Times reporter Barry Siegel presents the frightening story of Bill Macumber in Manifest Injustice: The True Story of a Convicted Murderer and the Lawyers Who Fought for His Freedom (Henry Holt, March). In May 1962, a young couple was gunned down in Arizona, their bodies left in the desert. A violent recidivist criminal by the name of Ernest Valenzuela confessed to the crimes on a total of six separate occasions, but his admission went unheeded by the police of Maricopa County. Fast-forward 12 years to 1974, when Carol Macumber, a clerk in the local sheriff’s department, told authorities that her estranged husband Bill had confessed to the murders. He was subsequently arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison, despite his wife’s inability to explain why it took her so long to report his supposed confession, and the fact that she finally did so during a nasty divorce.

When the case went to trial, the judge decided that though Valenzuela had died since confessing to the murders, his confession was still covered by attorney-client privilege. As a result, his admission of guilt was never allowed in court. Had the jurors been able to hear Valenzuela’s account—including his reason for pulling the trigger (Siegel, paraphrasing, writes, “He saw this good-looking gal with this man and wanted to prove to her that he was a better man than her guy”)—it’s easy to imagine Macumber would have walked, and that his former life, and relationship with his children, would’ve continued apace.

Finally, in 2009, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency unanimously recommended that Macumber be released on account of a “miscarriage of justice.” However, Governor Jan Brewer rejected its suggestion. Intrigued by the board’s findings and the media storm that followed Brewer’s refusal to play along, Siegel got on the case. But he insists he “did not enter the project presuming Macumber’s innocence. I entered because it promised a fascinating narrative, one which I could watch unfold over the shoulder of the Arizona Justice Project”—one of the few such organizations that accepts cases where there is no DNA evidence. Indeed, the situation was so fluid that Siegel had to revise the book’s ending at the 11th hour to incorporate the events that ultimately led to Macumber’s release in 2012.

Last year’s Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong (Knopf) by former New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner will also enrage readers struggling to accept the fact that criminal prosecutions are not, as Siegel puts it, “pristine searches for truth.” In his book, Bonner presents the sobering tale of Edward Lee Elmore, a semi-literate, mentally retarded black man who was sentenced to death for the sexual abuse and murder of an elderly white woman in South Carolina in 1982. Bonner writes, “Elmore’s story raises nearly all the issues that mark the debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, bad trial lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct, ‘snitch’ testimony, DNA testing, a claim of innocence.” Having been both a prosecutor and defense counsel, Bonner brings a unique perspective to the case, and—like Siegel—he gives readers someone to root for besides the accused, concentrating on the dogged heroism of Diana Holt, the young appellate attorney who fought for Elmore for over a decade. Bonner’s riveting account makes his conclusion really hit home: “If prosecutors abuse their authority, if defense lawyers are lazy or incompetent, if judges are weak or biased, the result is injustice, and in capital cases that can spell death.”

And that’s much more than a hypothetical concern; while Siegel and Bonner avidly followed their respective cases as observers—albeit incisive ones—Macarthur “Genius Grant”–winner Errol Morris takes on a more active role. Morris’s documentaries tackle a broad range of morally fraught topics, from Holocaust deniers to the blinkered decision-making that escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam (as chronicled in The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, a film for which he won an Academy Award). But it was 1988’s The Thin Blue Line that made the biggest waves—the doc was directly responsible for the exoneration of Randall Dale Adams, a man who had been sentenced to death for the 1976 murder of a Dallas patrolman.

Over the past four decades, another questionable murder conviction has haunted Morris. In 1979, Jeffrey MacDonald, a doctor and U.S. Army officer, was convicted of the savage 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. Morris writes in his 2012 book A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald (Penguin), “There is something disturbing about the MacDonald case, something that has made me return to it again and again over the years. It wasn’t the brutality of the murders. I’ve interviewed my share of mass murderers, including Ed Gein and Edmund Kemper. I was afraid of something even more chilling—that MacDonald was innocent. That he had been made to witness the savage deaths of his family and then was wrongfully convicted for their murders. I wondered if people needed him to be guilty because the alternative was too horrible to contemplate.”

But Morris has never shied away from contemplating the horrible, and that hasn’t changed in his latest. He painstakingly examines all the evidence and argues compellingly that there is more than a reasonable doubt about MacDonald’s guilt. For example, police insisted that a coffee table found tipped on its side could only have been placed that way intentionally, thus suggesting that MacDonald staged the crime scene to create the impression that he struggled with intruders. Yet Morris points out that “even if it couldn’t have possibly landed that way in a struggle, even if it had to be placed in that position, what did it ultimately show about MacDonald’s guilt or innocence?” Then, after granting the police their own faulty premise, Morris snatches it away from them by citing some particularly convincing evidence: the Army Colonel presiding at the preliminary military hearing went to the crime scene and kicked the table himself. Voila: it landed on its side. It would be an understatement to say Morris has an eye for crucial details.

Morris knows that his efforts have not proved MacDonald’s innocence with “absolute certainty,” though a rigged trial and lost, misinterpreted, and ignored evidence have led him—and will likely lead readers—to believe MacDonald was “railroaded” through the system.

But the power of his book extends beyond the particulars of the high-profile MacDonald case. Morris’s trenchant analysis focuses on the use of narratives in criminal prosecutions, and the tunnel vision they too often engender. While narratives are clearly necessary to make sense of raw facts, what happens, he asks, “when the narrative of a real-life crime overwhelms the evidence? When evidence is rejected, suppressed, misinterpreted—or is left uncollected at the crime scene—simply because it does not support the chosen narrative?” The answer, as Morris and others suggest, is a miscarriage of justice.

In Grave Injustice: Unearthing Wrongful Convictions (Univ. of Nebraska Press, Apr.), Richard A. Stack, author of Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance & the Victims of Capital Punishment, makes the case against “the ultimate and irrevocable tragedy of capital punishment” by examining the cases of 19 individuals who have been executed but were likely innocent.

Stack hopes “that the book will be helpful in abolition efforts in upcoming targeted states (next on the horizon are Delaware, Colorado, Kansas, and New Hampshire),” and that’s already been the case—Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, cited Grave Injustice in his testimony before the Maryland Senate and House Judicial Proceedings committees on their vote to repeal the death penalty. Indeed, politicians voting to end the state’s use of capital punishment corroborated Stack’s emphasis on the power of personal narrative by also citing the travails of specific individuals, such as Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate to be exonerated based on DNA testing.

In Mistrial: An Inside Look at How the Criminal Justice System Works... and Sometimes Doesn’t (Gotham Books, Apr.), defense attorneys Mark Geragos and Pat Harris “lay out the real truth of what happens behind the scenes with each participant (judges, juries, prosecutors, defense attorneys), some of which can be pretty ugly.” The book was written “to be entertaining and informative to people outside the system, a fun, easy read that will hopefully have potential jurors looking at the system with a little more balanced approach when they enter the courthouse.” In preparing the book, the pair was most surprised by how rarely “prosecutors are subjected to any kind of discipline, even minor discipline, for being caught purposefully hiding evidence or knowingly putting on false testimony.” Their experience in Los Angeles taught them that prosecutors are seldom reprimanded, “even when they are found to have committed prosecutorial misconduct.... We were shocked at the actual numbers nationwide. For example, in California less than 3% of prosecutors found to have committed prosecutorial misconduct are even investigated by the State Bar of California. The percentage in other states is even less.”

Still, it should be noted that there has been progress in fixing the flaws that have led to unjust convictions. Robert Kolker, whose Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (Harper, July) brings to life the victims of a serial killer, has made a study of false confessions (see Reviews, p. 41). Kolker is heartened by the growing trend in the U.S. to videotape entire police interrogations. Such recordings provide a clear record of the tactics the police use to elicit admissions of guilt.

Barry Scheck (Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right), cofounder of the Innocence Project at New York City’s Benjamin S. Cardozo School of Law and a member of MacDonald’s legal team, believes that the new National Commission on Forensic Science, a joint effort of the Department of Justice and the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, will make a huge dent in the junk science he holds partially responsible for miscarriages of justice. He also cites the movement toward making lineups fairer by insuring that both the witnesses and the officers setting up the spreads don’t know which individuals are the suspects in custody.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done. In the 20-plus years that the Innocence Project has existed, more than 350 people in the U.S. have been exonerated by DNA testing—“including 18 who served time on death row.” That’s an enormous accomplishment, but in an ideal world, those 350 would never have been put behind bars in the first place.

Sir William Blackstone wrote 250 years ago that “it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This formulation is one of the long-standing bases for Anglo-American criminal jurisprudence. But as Siegel, Bonner, Morris, Geragos, Harris, Stack, and Scheck have all demonstrated, far more than one innocent has suffered from a criminal justice system that has failed to consistently operate in accordance with that principle.

Jack the Ripper—Case Still Open

There’s no mystery about the perennial fascination with the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. The killer savagely, and for no obvious reason, butchered at least five impoverished prostitutes. The authorities’ failure to stop the brazen crimes attracted even the attention of Queen Victoria, who gave the police suggestions regarding investigatory tactics. As a twisted taunt, someone went so far as to send body parts and jeering messages to Scotland Yarders working the case. Suspects have ranged from common folk, like authors, artists, and actors, to some of the most prominent people of the day, including the royal surgeon, police commissioners, and even the Queen’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor.

And 125 years later, despite books with subtitles like Case Closed, the Bloody Truth, and the Final Chapter, theories as to the killer’s identity have only escalated in quantity, if not in quality (Vincent van Gogh, anyone?). A recent editorial in the magazine Ripperologist noted that in the last decade the number of named suspects has almost doubled to nearly 250. That armchair sleuthing continues to be reflected in a steady stream of books presenting “just the facts,” using the slaughter as a lens on Victorian England, examining the Scotland Yarders involved, or advancing a particular theory.

A thoroughly revised edition of Donald Rumbelow’s landmark study of the case, The Complete Jack the Ripper, which objectively surveys what is known—and what is not—will be published by Virgin Books in June. Detailed examinations of the evidence through the lens of current forensic science is provided in Jack the Ripper: CSI Whitechapel by Paul Begg and John Bennett (Andre Deutsch, Nov. 2012).

Rupert Matthews’s Jack the Ripper’s Streets of Terror: Life During the Reign of Victorian London’s Most Brutal Killer (Arcturus, Aug.) focuses on the effect the crimes had on the local population.

Social historian Judith Flanders touches on the Ripper in The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (Thomas Dunne, July), noting that the killings were viewed as popular entertainment even while they were occurring. “There were comic songs, children’s board games, and race horses called Jack the Ripper.” Flanders has her own perspective on what led to the intense public interest in the murders: “You now had a popular press that was churning out papers every hour of the day or night—several dozen in London alone, and going through new editions every time there was some news. In a way, it’s like the 24-hour news cycle today, feeding our interest in disasters or massacres. Before, there would have been one piece in whatever newspaper you read, one bulletin on the news in the evening, and that was it. The constant churn today is very like the churn of the newspapers at the end of the 19th century.”

The press played an even more vital role according to pioneering Warren Commission critic Edward Jay Epstein, in The Annals of Unsolved Crimes (Melville House, Apr.). Epstein suggests that the tabloid wars of the day may have unwittingly added to the mythic status of the Ripper (not to mention the body count) by provoking copycat killers.

The lead policeman on the case, Chief Insp. Frederick Abberline, is the focus of both M.J. Trow’s Ripper Hunter: Abberline and the Whitechapel Murders (Seaforth, Dec. 2012) and Peter Thurgood’s Abberline: The Man Who Hunted Jack the Ripper (History, U.K., June), while Insp. Edmund Reid, fictionalized for TV’s Ripper Street, is the subject of Nick Connell and Stewart Evans’s The Man Who Hunted Jack the Ripper (Amberley, Jan.).

A glimpse into the mind of a man who claims to have been the killer is provided in September’s The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper (Sourcebooks); it’s the confession of someone named James Carnac, whom Ripper aficionados believe should be taken seriously. One of the most popular, and derided, theories—involving a conspiracy to shield the crown from scandal—gets a fresh look in Colin Kendell’s Jack the Ripper: The Theories and the Facts of the Whitechapel Murders (Amberley, Jan.).

David Bullock’s The Man Who Would Be Jack: The Hunt for the Real Ripper (Robson, July 2012) builds upon prior speculation and points the finger at Thomas Cutbush, a man arrested in 1891 for stabbing two girls, making a stronger case that the Ripper had actually been in police custody at one point. And there are more on the way. In 2014, Putnam will publish a reworked Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed by the highest-profile writer on the case, Patricia Cornwell.