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Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Wrongful Convictions

Mea is a final year medical student with a diploma in psychology and a certificate in Gene Technology.

There have been many cases of wrongful conviction that led innocent people to be incarcerated for years in the U.S. This article looks at a few of them.

There have been many cases of wrongful conviction that led innocent people to be incarcerated for years in the U.S. This article looks at a few of them.

The Truth Will Set You Free

Due to human error, certain heinous criminals can walk free while some innocent individuals are unfairly incarcerated. Numerous factors, such as eyewitness misidentification, improper forensic techniques, false confessions, police misconduct, poor defense lawyering, and erroneous informant testimonies can contribute to such wrongful convictions. [9]

There have been many cases of wrongful convictions throughout the years. Many of these defendants were exonerated years later. Below are just a few case examples.

1. The Central Park Five

In 1989, Trisha Meili was sexually assaulted and beaten in Central Park by an unknown assailant who left her in a coma for several days. Five teenage boys were arrested and questioned rigorously without the presence of their parents. All five confessed to the felony. However, they continued to claim that the police coerced them until they provided confessions. The DNA evidence was insufficient at the time, and the techniques used for this purpose were also in the earliest stages. The jury found these teenagers guilty and they were imprisoned.

Thirteen years later, Matias Reyes, who was in prison for rape and murder, confessed to the crime. He knew details about the incident that only the perpetrator could have known, and DNA testing revealed that the semen sample recovered from the victim matched his profile. In 2002, the falsely accused young men were vacated. [8]

Richard Jones's (right) only crime was looking similar to Rick Amos (left).

Richard Jones's (right) only crime was looking similar to Rick Amos (left).

2. Richard Jones

Richard Jones served 17 years in prison for aggravated robbery, a crime he did not commit. The victim was only able to catch a glimpse of the thief. She described him as “a thin, light-skinned, black or Hispanic man with dark hair.” Richard Jones, a light-skinned black man, was arrested and put in a police lineup that consisted only of dark-skinned black men. The victim identified Jones as the culprit.

After a long time in prison, bitter and unable to comprehend the reason behind his indictment, he met a man called Rick Amos, another inmate who looked very similar to him. Fifteen years into his prison sentence, an attorney from the Innocence Project took over his case. Slowly, the actual details about the case unraveled, and finally Rick Amos was found guilty of the crime that Richard Jones was unfairly accused of committing. The victim who misidentified Richard in the police lineup was also surprised by the uncanny resemblance the two shared. After 17 years in prison, Jones was finally exonerated at the age of 41. [12]

Cameron Todd Willingham was accused of murdering his children.

Cameron Todd Willingham was accused of murdering his children.

3. Cameron Todd Willingham

When he was 23, Cameron Todd Willingham’s three daughters perished in a fire that occurred spontaneously in their house. Willingham survived, but he was in anguish as he was unable to save his children. He allowed an arson investigator to explore the cause of the fire. They found evidence to conclude that it was deliberately done, including a ‘puddle pattern’ on the floor that could be due to concentrations of combustible fluid and a spider web pattern on the glass that indicated that the fire had been fuelled by a liquid accelerant. The lab chemist’s report also confirmed the presence of liquid accelerant in a few samples.

Willingham became the prime suspect. The police questioned his neighbors and learned of his disturbing childhood, which included multiple arrests. Many eyewitness reports mentioned how he didn’t show much concern on the day of the fire. Willingham was questioned, and he denied all charges made against him. His wife also stated that he was incapable of murdering their children. Even though the investigators could not understand the motive behind his act, they charged him with murder.

Willingham did not have sufficient funds to hire a lawyer; therefore, one was appointed to him. He was branded a sociopath by psychologists who never even met him, and he was sentenced to death according to the Texas law.

Time in Prison and Execution

While in prison, he wrote letters to anyone who listened, asserting his innocence. Later, an acclaimed scientist looked into Willingham’s file and discovered that the theories used by the fire investigators to conclude foul play were actually scientifically inaccurate. Research has found that some of the signs of arson can actually appear spontaneously after a phenomenon known as a ‘flashover’. He also mentioned that most local fire investigators were only high school graduates who use their experience to assess such situations, rather than real scientific principles.

This scientist wrote a letter containing his findings to the relevant authorities, but it was disregarded. Willingham was executed. Years after his death, a panel of specialists also deduced that the indicators of arson that incriminated Willingham were scientifically proven to be invalid. [10] The combination of unprofessional scientific technique, poor lawyering, and general negligence resulted in the injudicious execution of this innocent man.

Factors That Influence Trial Outcomes

It is important to note that the characteristics of the defendant and the jury can determine the outcome of a trial. These can range from sociological factors such as age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and physical attractiveness to cognitive distortions. The confirmation bias causes individuals to seek information that will support their existing beliefs or hypotheses. In criminal justice, people will actively seek facts that will incriminate the suspects, rather than the facts that will exonerate them. Such distortions can interfere with proper judgment and the delivery of justice. [11]

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What Is the Insanity Defence?

Forensic psychologists perform a multitude of tasks in several fields. Screening of law enforcers, child custody evaluations, counselling, intervention programmes for offenders, competency evaluation of criminals, threat assessment in schools, and the evaluation of malingering are few such examples. In the criminal justice system, its primary focus is on the perpetrator rather than the crime.

There are many advanced scientific techniques which can be utilized to verify the details of a crime. However it is not an easy task to analyze the reasoning used by the individual who committed the crime. It is considered inequitable to convict an insane individual, even though it is a highly controversial matter. Therefore the insanity defense was introduced in to the criminal justice system. If the reason of insanity is sufficient to acquit a criminal, there must be a valid method to assess its presence. The defense is based on evaluations by mental health professionals with the use of appropriate techniques.

The policy of this defense is that the insane defendant does not have control over his/her actions and that he/she does not have the ability to form criminal intent.[1] However this is rarely used because it’s difficult to prove the presence of insanity. Many felons tend to emulate deranged individuals in order to acquire sympathy. There are instances where the use of this defense has been successful.

Robert De Niro's character in the movie taxi driver decided to assassinate the president of the United States in order to save the world. John Hinckley Jr. was inspired by this movie due to his obession with Jodie Foster who portrayed a prostitute.

Robert De Niro's character in the movie taxi driver decided to assassinate the president of the United States in order to save the world. John Hinckley Jr. was inspired by this movie due to his obession with Jodie Foster who portrayed a prostitute.

The Grey Area

Lorena Bobbitt

Lorena Bobbitt’s trial sparked national interest during the early 90s. Bobbitt, who was accused of mutilating her husband, was acquitted by the jury due to the reason of temporary insanity. She claimed that her husband raped her on the night this incident occurred. She waited for him to fall asleep, cut off his genitals and then fled their home. On her way she threw away the dismembered penis. Later she understood the gravity of her crime and called the police.

The defense argued that she was under immense psychological trauma due to constant and severe abuse from her husband. This ultimately culminated in to an irresistible impulse to strike back. The jury being sympathetic towards the defendant, found her not guilty of her crimes. [2] The defendant’s gender can also play a major role in jury decision making. It has been found that jurors see female defendants as more believable than male defendants. This assumption maybe due to the fact that males are more likely to commit high risk crimes and are likely to have high re-offending rates. [3]

John Hinckley Jr.

The insanity plea was also used successfully to acquit John Hinckley Jr., who was tried for the attempted assassination of president Regan. Hinckley developed a severe obsession with the actress Jodie Foster. After several failed attempts at establishing communication, he became desperate for her affection. Finally he believed that the only way to win her is by performing a grand gesture which will demonstrate his love. He was determined to assassinate the president of the United States. It ended up as a failure and he was put on trial.

The lead psychiatric expert for the defense emphasized that Hinckley suffered from schizophrenia, autistic retreat from reality, depression including suicidal features and the inability to establish social bonds. [4] The jury found him not guilty. This verdict caused outrage and resulted in reforms to the insanity defense, while certain states decided to interdict it.

Lorena Bobbitt was not incarcerated due to the use of the insanity plea.

Lorena Bobbitt was not incarcerated due to the use of the insanity plea.

Steven Steinberg

In 1981, Steven Steinberg was accused of murdering his wife by stabbing her 26 times with a kitchen knife. Initially he claimed that two strangers broke in to their house, held him down and murdered his wife. The police could not find any evidence to support this. Later Steinberg acknowledged the crime, but stated that he was sleepwalking, and therefore not sane at the time of the murder. His 12 year old daughter testified that she awoke due to the commotion during that night and when Steinberg saw her he yelled at her to shut the door.

His defense lawyer summoned two forensic psychiatrists to explain this scenario. They stated that Steinberg was experiencing a ‘dissociative reaction’ at the time of the murder and was therefore not responsible for his actions. The defense lawyers labeled his wife, Elena as a ‘Jewish American Princess’ who squandered all the money that was earned by her husband. Steinberg recently lost his job as a manager at a restaurant that belonged to his brother in law. It is important to note that there were several unsolved cases of theft from the cash register at the restaurant. Eventually this establishment was sold due to the lack of profit, and the new owners refused to hire Steinberg as he was a compulsive gambler. His lawyer stated that the compulsive gambling was a result of Elena’s constant shopping sprees.

The prosecution also had psychiatrists, but their best one was on vacation during that time. The psychologists who testified on behalf of Steinberg were more experienced and confident. Expert witnesses who convey high confidence are considered more credible by juries. [5] Steinberg was found not guilty due to reason of temporary insanity. Since he was deemed sane at the time of acquittal, there was no reason for him to get psychiatric treatment. He walked away a free man. [6]

John Wayne Gacy

The insanity plea was also used in the trial of John Wayne Gacy, a notorious serial murderer who took the lives of 33 young men after sexually assaulting them. However, the defense failed to provide substantial evidence to prove insanity and the jury sentenced him to death. [7]

Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.

— Theodore Roosevelt

The Importance of Fair and Accurate Protocols

It is perilous when human errors enable dangerous criminals to roam free, but it is more catastrophic when innocent individuals are punished for the crimes they didn’t commit. It is important to follow fair and accurate protocols during all stages of the criminal justice system in order to prevent or minimize fallacies that could result in unscrupulous devastation to human life.


[1] 6.1 The Insanity Defense. Retrieved from:

[2] Margolick, D. (1994, January 22). Lorena Bobbitt Acquitted in mutilation of husband. The new York times.

[3] McCoy, M. &Gray, J. (2007). The impact of defendant gender and relationship to victim on juror decision making in a child sexual abuse case. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37(7), 1578-1593.

[4] Linder, D.O. (n.d). The trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr.
Retrieved from:

[5] Parrot, C.T, Neal, T.M.S., Wilson, J.K., & Brodsky, S.L. (2015). Differences in expert witness knowledge: Do mock jurors notice and does it matter? Journal of the American Academy of psychiatry and Law, 43, 69-81.

[6] Suskin, K. (2008, April 3rd). “A Murderer walks and it’s not O.J—The Steinberg murder, or the defense lawyer is expensive but worth every penny.”
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[7] Petts, D.I. (n.d) John Wayne Gacy Trial: 1980-Trial Focuses on Gacy’s sanity.
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[8] Kassin, S.M. (2005). On the psychology of confessions: Does innocence put innocents at risk? American Psychologist, 60, 215-228.

[9] Causes of wrongful convictions. Retrieved from:

[10] Grann, D. (2009, September 7)“Trial by fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?”. The New Yorker, 63.
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[11] Wrongful conviction.
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[12] Phillips, K. ( 2017, June 13th). “An innocent man served 17 years. His ‘crime’? He looked almost exactly like the real suspect.” The Washington Post.
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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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