The Causes of Wrongful Conviction

Posted: April 29, 2008 by scaryhouse in The Causes of Wrongful Convictions, Uncategorized

Eyewitness Misidentification
Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.

While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. Instead, witness memory is like any other evidence at a crime scene; it must be preserved carefully and retrieved methodically, or it can be contaminated.

Unreliable or Limited Science
For centuries, scientific and pseudo-scientific evidence has been used in courts of law. From blood typing and hair comparison to bite marks and ballistics, many questionable and limited forms of science and technical evidence have been – and still are – used to convict defendants in the United States.

False Confession
Sometimes law enforcement use harsh interrogation tactics with uncooperative suspects. But some police officers, convinced of a suspect’s guilt, occasionally use tactics so persuasive that an innocent person feels compelled to confess. Some suspects have confessed to avoid physical harm or discomfort. Others are told they will be convicted with or without a confession, and that their sentence will be more lenient if they confess. Some are told a confession is the only way to avoid the death penalty.

Forensic Science Fraud or Misconduct
Because forensic science results can mean the difference between life and death in many cases, fraud and other types of misconduct in the field are particularly troubling. False testimony, exaggerated statistics and laboratory fraud have led to wrongful conviction in several states.

Since forensic evidence is offered by “experts,” jurors routinely give it much more weight than other evidence. But when misconduct occurs, the weight is misplaced. In some instances, labs or their personnel are too closely tied to police and prosecutors, and therefore not impartial. Other times, a criminalist lacking the requisite knowledge embellishes findings, confident that he will not be caught since the lawyer, judge and jury have no background in the relevant science.

Government Misconduct
DNA exonerations have exposed official misconduct at every level and stage of a criminal investigation. This misconduct has included:

  • deliberate suggestiveness in identification procedures
  • the withholding of evidence from defense
  • the deliberate mishandling, mistreatment or destruction of evidence
  • the coercion of false confessions
  • the use of unreliable government informants or snitches

Informants or Snitches
In more than 15% of cases of wrongful conviction overturned by DNA testing, an informant or jailhouse snitch testified against the defendant. Often, statements from people with incentives to testify – particularly incentives that are not disclosed to the jury – are the central evidence in convicting an innocent person.

People have been wrongfully convicted in cases in which snitches:

  • Have been paid to testify
  • Have testified in exchange for their release from prison.
  • Have testified in multiple distinct cases that they have evidence of guilt, through overhearing a confession or witnessing the crime.

Bad Lawyering
The resources of the justice system are often stacked against poor defendants. Matters only become worse when a person is represented by an ineffective, incompetent or overburdened defense lawyer. The failure of overworked lawyers to investigate, call witnesses or prepare for trial has led to the conviction of innocent people. When a defense lawyer doesn’t do his or her job, the defendant suffers. Shrinking funding and access to resources for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys is only making the problem worse.

Asleep on the job
A review of convictions overturned by DNA testing reveals a trail of sleeping, drunk, incompetent and overburdened defense attorneys, at the trial level and on appeal. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Innocent defendants are convicted or plead guilty in this country with less than adequate defense representation. In the some of the worst cases, lawyers have

  • slept in the courtroom during trial
  • been disbarred shortly after finishing a death penalty case
  • failed to investigate alibis
  • failed to call or consult experts on forensic issues
  • failed to show up for hearings

from the pages of The Innocence Project

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