How Do Wrongful Convictions Occur?

The American criminal justice system is undoubtedly complex, but its goal is simple: maintain the law in order to keep citizens safe.

What happens, however, when the system not only fails to find the perpetrator of a crime but instead wrongfully convicts an innocent party?

Unfortunately, wrongful convictions occur all too often in the United States. While there is no way to accurately determine how many people are serving time in prisons and jails across the country for crimes they did not commit, experts estimate between 2 and 8 percent of all convictions are wrongful.

That means, with nearly 6.9 million Americans supervised or incarcerated within the criminal justice system, as many as 548,000 people are serving sentences for the wrong reasons.

But just how do wrongful convictions occur in the first place? Here are some of the main causes:

Plea Bargains and Representation

The vast majority of the time, a defendant’s fate is not determined at trial. Instead, in an overwhelming number of felony cases — 97 percent — the wrongful conviction process begins well before the defendant even sets foot inside the courtroom.

This is because, in these situations, the accused has pled guilty to the criminal charges they face and, unsurprisingly, has a great deal of impact on conviction and sentencing.

Are defendants necessarily guilty 97 percent of the time? No, of course not.

The vast majority of these guilty pleas are actually the result of pre-trial negotiations between the prosecution and the defense. Behind closed doors a typical scenario may begin with the prosecution threatening to file the heaviest charges possible, pointing out that a guilty conviction, achieved going this route, would mean a particularly harsh sentence.

A defendant bewildered by this prospect is then shown an alternative: Plead guilty to lesser charges, accept the resulting conviction and be glad the sentence wasn’t worse. Convinced this is the best deal one can get, almost all felony defendants go this route, even if it results in their wrongful conviction.

While this may sound like the defense council in these cases are either inept or corrupt, the reality is that often the legal representation for defendants are public defenders — court-appointed lawyers for those who cannot afford an attorney’s services.

Unfortunately, while many public defenders do the best they can, there are far too few available for the large volume of defendants needing their services to provide adequate council. In many cases, defendants have mere minutes to talk to their lawyer. In others, their lawyer may be inexperienced.

Because of this, the public defenders are often reluctant to advise an innocence plea, aware they would likely be unable to provide an adequate defense that could make the outcome of their client’s case worse.

John Oliver explains this in depth:

False Confessions

Sometimes those accused of particularly serious crimes do not even make it to the plea bargaining stage before their fate is sealed. In more than a few wrongful conviction cases, suspects have confessed to crimes in writing or on tape that they were later proven to have not committed.

Why would an innocent person willingly admit to a crime they didn’t do? In many ways, these false confessions do not come easily — rather, they follow intense interrogations and coercive questioning tactics.

These methods sometimes involve aggressive, even violent behavior meant to intimidate and keep the suspect off balance. Suspects may even be lied to and told that there is already irrefutable evidence of their guilt in order to goad them into a confession.

Often, suspects’ access to food or the bathroom will restricted during questioning; sleep is frequently denied for extended periods as well. These tactics are surprisingly effective at producing a false confession.

A study examining sleep deprivation found that of those who missed just one night of sleep, 68 percent willingly signed their name to a pre-written false confession. Almost as startling was the finding that within the group, of those who got a proper night of sleep, 39 percent signed false confessions.

Faulty Testimonies

What happens when criminal trial proceedings finally begin? Evidence and testimonies are presented to a jury. Often this involves bringing an eyewitness to the stand to give his or her account and to identify the defendant.

Prosecutors and juries alike see these testimonies as among the best possible evidence that could be presented at trial, but in reality eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate.

In the case of Texas’ Ben Spencer, five eyewitness testimonies were given before he was wrongfully convicted for a brutal murder in 1987. Though no physical evidence was ever presented at trial, Spencer is serving life in prison because of the credibility lent to eyewitnesses.

After being sentenced, it was found that one testimony was given by a man sharing a jail cell with Spencer who’d been offered a reduced sentence in exchange; another had claimed award money from Crime Stoppers. The remaining three testimonies were discredited after re-examination of the circumstances of the crime revealed that they could not have possibly identified Spencer in low light conditions.

Of the many wrongful convictions overturned since the 1990s, at least 73 percent were originally made based primarily on faulty eyewitness accounts.

Circumstantial Evidence

At trial, there are three primary types of evidence: eyewitness, physical and circumstantial. While these can overlap, circumstantial evidence is particularly unique. Assembled by investigators, this form of evidence often relies on uncertainties and assumptions.

In Colorado, a 14-year-old was convicted for a 2000 murder he didn’t commit. At trial, prosecutors had no physical evidence whatsoever to present — their case was based entirely on a dubious confession, lacking any concrete evidence of the suspect’s involvement in the murder. He has since been exonerated and released.

Physical evidence, though superior to other types of evidence, is not without serious problems too.

Questionable Science

Though forensic science may seem infallible given its glamorization in TV crime dramas, in practice it is a field that is still very much in its infancy. As such, some methods rely on what might be termed “junk science” to produce evidence.

Shoe print comparison, bite mark analysis and hair microscopy, among other methods, are commonly presented at trial but often fail to meet scientific standards expected in other fields. Even blood typing, a proven method, is susceptible to producing faulty results.

Like eyewitness accounts, juries place a great deal of weight on this type of evidence. When a forensic scientist uses his or her authority to assert the indisputable nature of their findings, juries are typically inclined to agree.

Misconduct, Oversight and Bias

Willful impropriety committed by either investigators or the prosecution can play a significant role in producing wrongful convictions. As we’ve seen with coerced confessions, misleading testimonies and dubious forensic evidence, criminal trials are ripe for misconduct, particularly from the prosecution. Ultimately it is the prosecutor who determines what evidence is presented during a trial and what is withheld.

With this power, prosecutorial misconduct can occur when evidence is either deliberately misrepresented at trial or altogether withheld.

Prosecutors also have a great deal of influence over the jury selection process. In some cases, this can result in a jury assembled with a bias. Often, this can be seen through a racial lens, as in the case of former Louisiana death row inmate Glenn Ford.

Ford, a black man, was convicted of a brutal 1983 murder and spent 30 years waiting to be executed. He was finally released in 2014 when a new testimony was presented to the courts, proving Ford’s innocence. As the prosecutor in Ford’s original trial later wrote, he was filled with remorse that he had successfully convicted Ford after he helped assemble an all-white jury and presented questionable evidence at trial.

What Can Be Done?

The quagmire of the modern U.S. criminal justice system may appear daunting to those seeking meaningful reform. However, just as the system has rapidly changed over the past several decades, so too can it be reshaped to be more just.

Perhaps more than anything, plea bargaining reform is essential.

This process should not be dominated by prosecutors; a system of checks and balances must be put into place. One way to do this is to require a judge’s approval of a plea deal before it is made. Another solution might be to institute a grand jury-style process that has to clear a guilty plea deal before moving on to a criminal trial.

Individually, the average citizen can do the most to prevent wrongful convictions simply by registering to vote — not just to elect leaders and lawmakers who will seek reform, but in order to qualify for the jury selection process, where the most impact can be made.

Photo Credit: montiannoowong / Thinkstock

60 comments

John B
John B6 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Jen S.
Jen Sabout a year ago

I found this article very compelling. The Innocence Project and other groups have proven conclusively that innocent people are convicted far more frequently than most of us thought. Prosecutors are not beyond cutting corners, ethics violations, rabid ambition. Judicial oversight, with real teeth instead of a rubbers tamp is needed and more reliance upon upon the verifiable science, which improves exponentially almost yearly, of forensic, objective evidence both would be two safeguards against wrongful conviction. More public defenders, with fewer cases, better resources, better compesation, better training to accompany what I choose to regard as altruistic intent. Finally, as we have seen on Care 2 recently, we must have better judges, not tyrants, ideologues, bigots, misogynists. And over them, more and better judicial oversight. Great essay!

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallusabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Teresa Antela
Teresa Aabout a year ago

Noted.

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michal r.
michal rabout a year ago

the obvious is to ignore confessions! why nobody in the us demands the system to trial upon consistent forensic evidence only?!

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Danuta Watola
Danuta Wabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Elaine W.
Past Member about a year ago

Change is needed.

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Pablo B.
.about a year ago

tyfs

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Barbara S.
Barbara S.about a year ago

Another reason the Prosecution finds tolerable for convicting someone who's already in custody is the public fear a crime can create. If people are afraid to go out for dinner or even just to meet friends for a drink, and if businesses are registering an extreme loss in revenue because people are staying home, the D.A. will often pressure the Prosecutors to wrap up a case with what they have to get the public back onto the streets, spending money again. I find all of these "reasons" deplorable. If someone truly IS innocent, they should not be badgered into plea bargains, false confessions, or lied about just to close cases.

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Muff-Anne York-Haley
Muff-Anne Yabout a year ago

There are many flaws in the criminal justice system! I've watched cases on Dateline where brutal murderers get life imprisonment and others where they take a plea and get 10 years! Ten years for brutal homicide isn't justice!

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