The number of wrongly convicted persons cannot be known with certainty, because no federal or state agency keeps track of exonerations, let alone wrongful convictions. Many news stories, reports, and books fairly describe wrongful convictions in detail, although not all of these wrongful convictions resulted in formal exonerations. In some of these cases, prosecutors insisted that the original verdict was accurate despite strong new evidence of factual innocence, further clouding an understanding of wrongful convictions.
II. The Rise of the Innocence Movement
III. Size and Scope of the Wrongful Conviction Problem
IV. Causes of Wrongful Convictions
A. Eyewitness Identification
B. Forensic Science Error or Misconduct
C. False Confessions
D. Perjury: Perpetrators, Informants, Jailhouse Snitches, and Criminal Justice Personnel
E. Ineffective Defense Counsel
F. Prosecutorial Misconduct
G. Police Investigation
H. Other Causes, Root Causes
V. Reforms: Reducing the Number of Wrongful Convictions
VI. Conclusion and Bibliography
Wrongful convictions occur when innocent defendants are found guilty in criminal trials, or when defendants feel compelled to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid the death penalty or extremely long prison sentences. The term wrongful conviction can also refer to cases in which a jury erroneously finds a person with a good defense guilty (e.g., self-defense), or where an appellate court reverses a conviction (regardless of the defendant’s factual guilt) obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. This research paper deals with the first type of wrongful convictions, or wrong person convictions. Note also that the verdict of acquittal in American law is “not guilty” rather than “innocent,” meaning that an acquitted person might not be factually innocent. For the sake of clarity, the term actual or factual innocence is used to refer to persons who did not commit the crime. Miscarriage of justice (a legal term in England) is also used to describe wrongful convictions.
A wrongful conviction is a terrible injustice that is magnified when an actually innocent person spends years in prison or on death row. This has always been recognized by the U.S. legal system. The rising number of exonerations, however, and growing awareness that such injustices occur every day in American courts, raises profound doubts about the accuracy and fairness of the criminal justice system. This understanding is supported by considerable recent research. This surge in awareness and budding research has motivated a growing number of innocence projects, which work to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, to also propose justice policy reforms designed to reduce the number of wrongful convictions or to alleviate their effects. This research paper explains why wrongful conviction has become a prominent issue, the scope of the problem, its causes, and reform proposals.
The injustice of being convicted and imprisoned for a crime one did not commit is intuitively apparent. Research and anecdotal evidence shows that a high proportion of wrongfully convicted prisoners suffer severe psychological consequences, including posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders, which is not typical among actually guilty prisoners in the absence of life-threatening experiences in prison. This complicates the ability of exonerated prisoners to return to a normal life after release.
More than half the states do not legally authorize financial compensation for persons who were victimized by the criminal justice system in this way, although the number of states with compensation laws has grown in recent years. Moreover, exonerated prisoners do not receive the services provided to prisoners released on parole. Newer compensation laws provide for health and restorative services, as well as financial compensation, to help exonerated prisoners. A person who has been exonerated does not have automatic grounds to sue and recover money damages against police or prosecutors. A number of such cases have been successful in recent years, but they are infrequent and successful only when specific wrongdoing by criminal justice agencies can be proven and immunity defenses overcome.
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As the pace of DNA exonerations has grown across the country in recent years, wrongful convictions have revealed disturbing fissures and trends in our criminal justice system. Together, these cases show us how the criminal justice system is broken and how urgently it needs to be fixed. We should learn from the system’s failures. In each case where DNA has proven innocence beyond doubt, an overlapping array of causes has emerged from mistakes to misconduct to factors of race and class. Over the past twenty years, advancement in DNA technology has directly led to the exoneration of nearly 300 people in the United States. In addition to these scientific advancements, a growing body of literature has focused on the significant roles eyewitness misidentification, so-called “jailhouse snitches,” and false confessions have played in contributing to wrongful convictions in U.S. courts. Through an examination of previous wrongful conviction research and appellate court rulings, will also explore the extent to which permitting wrongful convictions to be upheld constitutes a violation of civil liberties.
While DNA technology and other advanced forensic techniques are increasingly being relied upon to secure criminal convictions, the justice system seems to be correspondingly reluctant to consider these forms of evidence for the purposes of overturning the convictions of the factually innocent. A confession is arguably the most damaging evidence that can be brought against a defendant in a court of law. Ostensibly, it seems reasonable to assume that one would only confess to a crime that he or she had actually committed. However, in the United States, false confessions may result in nearly 400 wrongful felony convictions annually. The American criminal justice system is based on the concept that wrongs have causes, that such causes are preventable, and that injurious acts warrant recompense to victims as well as punishment for offenders. If the problem is to be addressed and rectified, it must first be understood; not as it is perceived, but as it is.
The relationship between wrongful convictions and legal procedure is not one of simple cause and effect. Rather, this problem represents a dynamic interaction between defendants and observers wherein all parties play an active role. However, the wrongful conviction trend has only been subjectively accepted by the general public to any measurable degree within the past two decades. In conclusion, the introduction of DNA testing to the courtroom has certainly elevated the issue into public discourse. This landmark case initiated the movement which has been responsible for overturning more than 300 convictions to date. Once assumed to be a preposterous notion, 94 percent of recent poll respondents believed that innocent defendants are sometimes executed via the American judicial process. Unfortunately, researchers will likely never know exactly how many innocent defendants have lost their lives, or the better part of them, due to miscarriages of justice.