White Paper First Draft

Pitch Your Proposal

Our classroom discussions about counterintuitive topics have been, essentially, preparation for your own research plans. This assignment will be your first chance to pitch a topic of your own. You’ll begin at the list of counterintuitive topics linked to the sidebar, then mine the subject matter you find there (or follow a train of thought to an original topic of your own), then briefly present your pitch to research a particular hypothesis.

If you make a strong enough case to investigate a narrow, counterintuitive premise, I’ll be happy for you to develop and support a thesis with further research.

If you pitch a topic that is too broad, hard to research, impossible to argue or verify, I’ll respond with a request for further refinement of your hypothesis.

Specific. Arguable. Researchable. Verifiable.

While reading on your topic, develop a counterintuitive hypothesis, then formalize your proposal in writing and share the first five sources you’ve found relevant to your hypothesis. Choose a field of study that interests you so that the next several weeks will be pleasurable and rewarding instead of drudgery. But beyond enjoyable, the hypothesis you propose must also be specific, arguable, researchable, verifiable.

You’ll be even more clear in your White Paper several weeks from now, but before class next Wednesday, I’ll need your research proposal with your first five sources, Purposefully Summarized. Following is an example from an earlier semester. Username explains the relevance of her first five sources to her nascent hypothesis.

Username‘s Proposal

For my research essay I will be examining America’s judicial flaw of false convictions. A study conducted by The University of Virginia in 2007 investigated the court cases of 200 death row inmates and found that a majority of them were innocent people being held in prison for a average of 12 years despite substantial evidence of their innocence that the court system failed to notice. As a nation that takes its law and justice system extremely seriously, America should not tolerate so catastrophic a failure. However, this problem is shockingly common and each year more than 10,000 innocent people go to prison for crimes that they did not commit.

While the most common reason for false convictions is eyewitness misidentification; another problem is the failure to consider DNA evidence that could potentially free the innocent person and place the guilty one behind bars. This problem is mind-blowing considering we live in a country that is so focused on justice and placing the guilty in prison. It is inexcusable how so many innocent people get sent to jail because prosecutors and crime scene investigators choose to dismiss extremely important evidence.

Is the Hypothesis Specific?

—AVOID: Naming a topic instead of a hypothesis.
“False convictions” is a topic, not a thesis. It would not be specific enough for a thesis. Username has avoided that pitfall.

—AVOID: Survey proposals.
“Suspects are falsely convicted for many different reasons” promises nothing but a survey of somewhat related material. It has no argument value and does not result in a proposal. Username has avoided that pitfall.

—CREATE: Controversial premise.
“False convictions are deliberate attempts to get convictions whether or not the suspect is guilty” is a valid, specific proposition that invites argument and that, if true, would demand a remedy. Username hasn’t specifically named this premise, but she could.

Is the Hypothesis Arguable?

—AVOID: Too Broad an argument.
“Many convicts are wrongfully incarcerated.” The premise can be interpreted to mean, among other things, 1) sentences are too long for misdemeanors, 2) laws are inconsistent across jurisdictions, 3) people who commit worse crimes are free, 4) youthful offenders should get probation, 5) thousands of defendants take “plea deals” for jail time to avoid more serious charges, or 6) poor defendants get weak legal defense. The argument is too broad to be meaningful.

—AVOID: Too Vague an argument.
“Convicts are jailed because of problems with evidence.” The premise might mean that police don’t gather enough evidence, that forensic technology is not sophisticated, that evidence can be corrupted or mishandled, that juries don’t know how to interpret evidence, that prosecutors suppress evidence, that evidence can be planted to frame suspects, that eyewitness evidence is unreliable, and on, and on.

—CREATE: A narrow framework for argument.
“Prosecutors unmask their true intentions when they attempt to suppress new exculpatory evidence.” This premise can certainly be argued. Username is already citing sources that identify death row inmates who have sought (and been denied) new trials when DNA evidence proves their innocence. The question: “Why would a prosecutor attempt to thwart justice by refusing to examine evidence that could free a wrongly convicted prisoner and put the real criminal in jail?” creates an opportunity for a narrow and controversial argument.

Is the Hypothesis Researchable?

—AVOID: Arguments about people’s feelings or beliefs.
That “prosecutors ignore new exculpatory evidence because they’re embarrassed to have convicted the wrong suspect” may very well be true, but it can’t be researched. Prosecutors are very unlikely to admit they made mistakes at all in gaining convictions. They’re much less likely to express embarrassment. Where would you look for the evidence?

—AVOID: Arguments that won’t be settled in your lifetime.
It would be pointless to argue that in fifty or sixty years every human will be DNA-coded at birth and that the failure to find a particular suspect’s DNA at the scene of a crime will automatically exonerate that suspect. No evidence of that future condition can be researched.

—CHOOSE: Researchable evidence.
On the other hand, you could argue that “since eye-witness testimony is proved unreliable by DNA evidence a staggering percentage of the time, no more suspects should ever be convicted of capital offenses without at least some physical evidence.” Numbers on faulty eye witnesses, wrongful convictions, and DNA reversals can all be researched.

Is the Hypothesis Verifiable?

—AVOID: Hypotheses with vague terms.
“Most of today’s death row inmates would be free if the court system was fairer.” The premise might be tempting for Username, but it’s too vague to verify. For example, a system that demanded stronger proof might exonerate a convict for his capital crime, but it might for different reasons have convicted him of related crimes committed at the same time or earlier. A “fairer” system might actually convict a larger, not a smaller, percentage of suspects.

—AVOID: Hypotheses with unverifiable conclusions.
Username might be tempted to claim that “Prosecutors and police do more harm than good by coercing eye witnesses to identify suspects.” When those witnesses err, and convictions result, the system may be to blame. But it’s also surely true that many witnesses who assist in rightful convictions would not have done so if not pressured to testify. The proportion of “coerced correct” to “coerced false” convictions is almost certainly unverifiable.

—CHOOSE: Hypotheses that can be quantified.
“Hundreds of death row inmates were convicted on the basis of eye witness testimony alone, evidence that has been clearly demonstrated to be too fallible for capital convictions,” for example. If that proves to be true, it provides the factual basis for a strong thesis, that no suspect should be convicted of a capital crime on the basis of eye witness testimony alone, AND that anyone currently on death row for such convictions deserves a new trial when new physical evidence is available.

Username‘s Sources

1. “Wrongful Convictions: The American Experience

The Essential Content of the Article: This article provides both case studies and statistical data detailing the high number of wrongful convictions in the United States as well as other nations such as Canada. It provides descriptions of how wrongful convictions occur and identifies organizations that are working to try and prevent them.

What it Proves: By listing the most common reasons innocent people end up in prison, the article will help me produce proposals for eliminating those reasons.

2. “Study Suspects Thousands of False Convictions

The Essential Content of the Article: This article from The New York Times focuses on a study conducted by The University of Michigan about 328 criminal cases in which the convicted person was released from prison. Extrapolating from this evidence, the researchers conclude that thousands of innocent people are in prison for crimes they did not commit. While the article does not fixate on DNA exonerations, a large portion of it suggests new DNA evidence can easily overturn wrongful convictions.

What it Proves: The information about DNA exonerations will be extremely useful to me as a major aspect of my argument will be that DNA evidence gets ignored. The study also highlights exactly how large a problem false convictions are in the United States by using a small group of convicted inmates and discovering exactly how many of them are actually innocent, something I will be trying to prove in my essay on a larger scale.

3. 250 Exonerated, Too Many Wrongly Convicted

The Essential Content of the Article: This extraordinary document from “The Innocence Project”details the cases of 250 convicts falsely imprisoned, many for 20 years or more, on the basis of misidentification, false testimony, questionable evidence, or flawed test results. The Innocence Project is dedicated to helping free innocent victims that were falsely convicted. It uses DNA evidence to exclude convicts who have consistently and loudly protested their innocence of the crimes they’ve been convicted of.

What it Proves: I plan to use the information found in this document to provide concrete examples of people who were helped by the discovery or reopening of DNA or other evidence. This will further prove my point that many innocent people go to prison for crimes they do not commit because law enforcement did not take the time to intensely go over every detail in a case.

4. “Prosecutors Block Access to DNA Testing for Inmates

The Essential Content of the Article: This article focuses on two men, one of which is in prison for a rape he insists he did not commit, and the other who says DNA evidence would prove he was falsely convicted of a double murder. The article states that prosecutors often resist reopening cases despite the fact that the reinstitution of a closed case could potentially free an innocent person from prison.

What it Proves: My thesis is that prosecutors fail to examine or fully credit evidence that could exonerate suspects. Since this article is entirely focused on the lengths that prosecutors go in order to step around the idea of reopening a case to do further DNA testing, it provides me with good examples of questionable prosecutor behavior. Quite often, law enforcers are content with placing a person in prison and to them, a person in jail is a win whether they are innocent or not. This obviously is a major flaw in the justice system and I intend to expose this flaw with the help of this article as it offers a backstage pass into the world of criminology.

5. “Criminology” Beirne, Piers, and Messerschmidt, James. Criminology. Fort Worth, Texas. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1991.

The Essential Content of the Article: This Criminology devotes an entire chapter to false convictions, how they occur, why they’re hard to avoid and harder to overturn. It gives me an overview of problems I can further research.

What it Proves: In itself, the book doesn’t prove much, but it provides the terms I need to know to do my research and the broad topics I will investigate. When I am looking for definitions and important things to know, I will reference this book.

Problems to Avoid

If those five examples aren’t sufficient to guide you to the best possible Source Descriptions, maybe this terrible description will keep you from making some common mistakes on your first draft. Terrible Version below.

  • DO NOT SAY that your source “talks about,” or “deals with” a broad topic, or that it “provides background.”
  • DO NOT SAY about all five of your sources that they “will give me necessary information to prove my thesis.” Such statements don’t help the reader understand the value of your source.

Terrible Version of Source 4

4. “Prosecutors Block Access to DNA Testing for Inmates

The Essential Content of the Article: This article talks about two men who had similar experiences with the justice system. They both want their cases reopened because they claim they’re innocent.

What it Proves: This article shows a major flaw in the justice system and I intend to expose this flaw with the help of this article as it offers a backstage pass into the world of criminology.

Assignment Specifics

  1. Write a formal version of your research proposal, identifying what you expect to find, or hope to find, or are open to finding, in as much detail as you can manage.
  2. The proposal can be brief, provided it is clear. Your plan is preliminary and will not obligate you to remain faithful, but it should be offered in good faith. (It’s a proposal, not your wedding vows. You can change your mind without a lawyer.)
  3. Identify and link to your best 5 sources. Find academic sources if possible. If not, ask yourself: “Is the Hypothesis Researchable?” As in the model assignment above, describe the value you believe the sources have in proving your hypothesis.
  4. Post your Research Proposal and Sources in two categories:
    1. White Paper
    2. Your Username
    3. Title your post: White Paper—Username

Grade Details

Customary late penalties. (0-24 hours 10%) (24-48 hours 20%) (48+ hours, 0 grade)
Assignment will receive a Non-Portfolio Grade