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Issues Leading to Wrongful Convictions

by J.D. Garrett on November 19, 2013

The criminal justice system is not foolproof. Judges make improper rulings, prosecutors use unreliable evidence, and juries make mistakes. While it is impossible to quantify just how many people are convicted for crimes that they did not commit, the use of DNA evidence in exonerations provides a glimpse of some of the many ways criminal trials can go wrong. Because overturning a wrongful conviction is very difficult, hiring an experienced criminal defense attorney is the best way to prevent this problem before it occurs.

The Leading Causes of Wrongful Convictions

Wrongful Conviction StatitsticsThe Innocence Project is a national non-profit organization that studies wrongful convictions and advocates on behalf of prisoners through DNA evidence. The organization examined 225 convictions that were overturned after DNA evidence exonerated the defendants. The Innocence Project’s study revealed that there were similar factors in many of the cases that contributed to wrongful convictions. According to the study, there are four main causes: eyewitness misidentification (77%), unreliable/improper forensics (52%), false confessions/admissions (23%), and informants that lied (16%). In many of the cases, several of these factors contributed to the wrongful conviction.

Eyewitness misidentification is the largest factor that contributes to wrongful convictions. An eyewitness that identifies a defendant as the perpetrator of a crime is often persuasive evidence in the eyes of the judge and jury. But this type of identification is incredibly unreliable. There are a variety of practical and psychological factors that can distort a witness’s memory of an event. Each witness’s ability to see accurately observe the crime can vary tremendously. As memories fade, a witness’s ability to recall the details of the crime and the person who committed it becomes even more unreliable; however eyewitness identifications are still a favored practice in the criminal justice system.

Unreliable and improper forensic testing is another factor that contributes to wrongful convictions. There are many types of forensic tests that prosecutors employ during trials and the reliability of these types of evidence varies. As recently seen in the case of Gerard Richardson, bite mark comparison tests are inherently unreliable. Richardson was convicted of murdering a woman in New Jersey based in part on a bite mark found on the victim. After serving 17 years in prison, he was exonerated based on DNA evidence. Richardson is just one of over two dozen convictions and arrests based on bite-mark comparisons that have been overturned in the past 12 years. His case underscores both the unreliable nature of bite-mark comparisons and the weight that juries give this type of evidence.

False confessions and informants who lie are two more leading factors that contribute to wrongful convictions. As we recently discussed, there are a variety of reasons that people falsely confess to crimes that they did not commit. In many cases, a recorded confession may be the only evidence that the prosecution has against the defendant, but it can be enough to convict him or her. Finally, in many cases, prosecutors use informants’ testimony as evidence against the wrongly convicted. These informants often agree to testify in exchange for reduced prison time, better treatment while in prison, or – in some cases – money. Given these strong incentives, informants have a motive to lie. Unfortunately, this tactic undermines the criminal justice system and can have devastating consequences.

The best way to prevent a wrongful conviction is to hire a competent, qualified criminal defense attorney. If you have been charged with a crime in Virginia, contact one of our experienced criminal defense attorneys. Together, we will evaluate the evidence and the prosecutor’s case against you, and put together your strongest defense.

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