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Wrongful Convictions: How Do They Happen?

Several Factors Can Cause a Miscarriage of Justice

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Innocent people are convicted and sentenced for violent crimes they did not commit more frequently than we would like to admit in the United States. How does it happen? Is there a way to predict wrongful convictions and prevent them from happening in the future?

Researchers for the Department of Justice found that there are certain social factors that can play a role in an innocent person being convicted.

Funded by a National Institute of Justice grant, researchers at the Washington Institute for Public and International Affairs Research at American University conducted a three-year, large-scale study to try to learn what factors come into play in a wrongful conviction.

Wrongful Convictions and Near Misses

The researchers studied 460 cases, some of which resulted in wrongful convictions. They compared the social factors present in those cases to other cases they described as a "near miss," when innocent defendants were arrested and charged, but acquitted or had the charges dropped before trial.

"Surprisingly unlike airplane crashes or near midair collisions where the FAA moves in to investigate and reconstruct events in an effort to prevent future catastrophes, wrongful convictions have rarely been investigated beyond a specific case study," said lead author Jon B. Gould. "This is especially troubling since our criminal legal system is predicated on finding defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before imprisoning them."

10 Factors of Wrongful Convictions

The researchers found these 10 factors identified in wrongful convictions:

  • State death penalty culture/state punitiveness
  • Strength of prosecution's case
  • Prosecution withheld evidence (Brady violation)
  • Forensic evidence errors
  • Strength of defendant's case
  • Age of defendant
  • Criminal history of defendant
  • Intentional misidentification
  • Lying by non-eyewitness
  • Family witness testified on behalf of defendant

Gould said that using the above 10-factor "model" a panel of experts was able to predict a wrongful conviction versus a near miss about 91 percent of the time. The panel was composed of experts from the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Police Foundation, National Innocence Project and National District Attorneys Association.

Opportunities to prevent a wrongful conviction occur all along the way as the case proceeds through the criminal justice system, beginning with the initial interview at the police station.

Early Errors and Tunnel Vision

Gould said these three factors could cause a "perfect storm" of early errors in the case:

Once these factors occur, it can unintentionally create a collective tunnel vision by law enforcement and prosecutors which makes the situation worse.

The tunnel vision, Gould said, can cause a prosecutor with a weak case to focus more on the accused rather than other suspects because the case seems to "add up" although it may be based on weak evidence. This can happen simply because tunnel vision has set in early in the process, Gould said.

Based on Weak Evidence, Not Strong

The researchers thought their study would reveal that wrongful convictions were the result of strong prosecutorial cases with strong evidence against the accused. They were surprised to find the opposite was true. Most wrongful convictions were the result of cases where there was weak evidence, such as a misidentification.

Therefore, the researchers determined that many wrongful convictions occurred because the weak cases were not adequately challenged by the defense attorneys.

A Weak Defense Effort

The found that wrongful convictions can happen when these factors are involved:

  • Weak defense counsel
  • Forensic evidence goes unchallenged
  • Exculpatory evidence is not disclosed

These factors can cause a weak case to spiral out of control and result in an innocent person being convicted of a crime they did not commit.

Age, Previous Criminal Record

Other social factors can come into play in a wrongful conviction, such as the age of the defendant or if the defendant has previous convictions. Social factors such as these can place the defendant in the position of not being about to demand more from prosecutors or even from their own defense attorneys, Gould said.

The National Institute for Justice hopes to take what they learned in this study and future studies that look more closely at near misses, to see how the system can get it right to start with, instead of pursuing innocent defendants, which allows the guilty to remain free.

Source: Gould, JB et al. "Predicting Erroneous Convictions: A Social Science Approach to Miscarriages of Justice." December 2012.

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