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The problem of wrongful conviction in America: Part II

In our post last week, we began a discussion about the high number of exonerations in the U.S. in recent years. In 2013, for example, at least 87 people in the United States were exonerated, many of whom had spent years or even decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. There has been at least one wrongfully convicted individual exonerated here in Wisconsin within the past couple years.

The high number of exonerations is thanks to the work of advocacy groups like The Innocence Project. But what accounts for the high number of wrongful convictions in the first place?

Of the 87 wrongfully convicted individuals cleared in 2013, most had been erroneously convicted of either sexual assault or homicide. It may be tempting to assume, then, that their convictions were related to mistakes with forensic evidence like DNA; a science which has only been used in the courtroom in recent decades. But of the 87 exonerations last year, DNA evidence played a significant role in only 18 cases.

Sadly, the majority of wrongful convictions were due to problems that could not be blamed on a relatively new form of evidence. Among the cases leading to last year’s exonerations, common causes of wrongful conviction included:

  • Perjury
  • False accusations
  • Mistaken eyewitness identification 
  • Official misconduct (wrongdoing by a public official)
  • False or coerced confessions by defendants

Problems such as mistaken eyewitness identification are understandable and somewhat excusable. It is only in recent years that studies have shown how unreliable and inaccurate eyewitness identification can be. But the rest of these problems leading to wrongful conviction are not nearly as forgivable.

In at least some cases, prosecutors may have been so interested in obtaining a conviction that they cut corners and violated a defendant’s civil rights. Moreover, there were 27 cases in which individuals were convicted when no crime had actually been committed by anyone. Many of these were related to drugs.

The important lesson to be learned from this report is that the criminal justice system is run by imperfect and sometimes dishonest human beings. Therefore, mistakes are made and misconduct is a very real threat. A good criminal defense attorney understands that a conviction isn’t necessarily the end of the road for a defendant. It may be just the beginning.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Criminal Exonerations at All-Time High," Jacob Gershman, Feb. 4, 2014

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