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Wrongfully Convicted: Why Does It Happen?

Douglas Parker has always had a special interest in the sphere of Law and Human Rights.


What Does "Wrongful Conviction" Mean?

A wrongful conviction is the conviction of a person who is, in fact, innocent of the crime they are accused of. These cases are often called ‘miscarriages of justice’ because they undermine the criminal justice system and produce a fundamentally ‘unjust’ outcome. The person accused is punished for an offense that they did not commit whilst the perpetrator walks free.

The reasons behind wrongful convictions are many and varied, including police misconduct, misidentification by eyewitnesses, false or coerced confessions, flawed forensics, inadequate criminal defense attorneys, and jailhouse informants.

Famous Cases of Wrongful Convictions

Now that we know what a wrongful conviction is, let’s look at some of the most famous cases of people who have been sent down for crimes they haven’t committed.

Brian Banks

The 17-year-old Banks had a promising career as a football player ahead of him when he was accused of rape and kidnapping in 2002 after a consensual sexual encounter. The alleged victim later recanted her story and admitted it was fabricated. With the support of The California Innocence Project, his criminal defense attorney, and the Superior Court, his conviction was reversed in 2012.

The Central Park Five

In 1989, five juvenile men from racial minority groups were arrested and convicted for the assault and gang rape of a female jogger in Central Park. The available DNA evidence was not a match for any of the men, but they all made confessions—which they later claimed were violently coerced—and spent between 6 to 13 years in prison. In 2002, convicted rapist Mathias Reyes admitted to the crime, and the men were finally exonerated. The case is seen as an example of racial bias and profiling.

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Steven Avery

Perhaps one of the most well-known wrongful convictions is that of Steven Avery, whose case was examined in detail in the documentary Making a Murderer. He was charged with the sexual assault and attempted murder of a woman in 1985. After serving 18 years in prison for the crime, DNA evidence exonerated him. Following his release, he filed a lawsuit against Manitowoc County, only to be arrested again and convicted of the murder of Theresa Halbach in 2005. Top criminal defense attorney Kathleen Zellner now represents him.

The West Memphis Three

In 1994, three young men, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, were tried and convicted of the murder of three eight-year-old boys. When a documentary showed serious police misconduct and coercive interrogation techniques, the case garnered high profile support from celebrities such as Johnny Depp. In 2011, after new DNA evidence supported their innocence, the men were released following an Alford plea. Their criminal defense attorney suggested that ‘they were easy targets’ due to their demeanor and the satanic panic of the time.

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter

At the height of his career, the middleweight boxer was wrongfully convicted, not once, but twice, for a triple homicide and spent almost 20 years in prison. The case was built on eyewitness testimony, but there was no evidence or motive, and the eyewitnesses later recanted. The case inspired the Bob Dylan song ‘Hurricane’ and the film The Hurricane, and Carter went on to become an activist for the wrongfully convicted.

What Needs to Change

Surprisingly, considering developments in areas like DNA testing, wrongful convictions are not rare occurrences, which suggests a systemic problem. A number of areas need to change so the system can improve and innocent people can avoid wrongful arrests and convictions.

  • Greater scrutiny of eyewitness identifications. Mistaken eyewitness identifications are a leading factor in wrongful convictions. This problem can be improved by toughening up the rules for line-ups, for example by using a ‘double-blind’ procedure, where neither the administrator nor the eyewitness knows who the suspect is, and composing the line-up fairly so that the suspect doesn’t stand out.
  • Stronger supervision of police interviews. The recording of police interviews is important so that the suspect is not coerced into making a false confession when law enforcement use intimidation or threats and other unfair interrogation techniques.
  • Use of proper science to bolster investigations. Misapplication of forensic science or misconduct of forensic scientists can lead to wrongful convictions. Laws should be enacted to take discredited forensic science back to court, and judges, policymakers and criminal defense attorneys should be made aware of the inaccurate nature of unvalidated forensic science.
  • Approval on post-conviction DNA testing. DNA testing is one of the most important aspects of overturning wrongful convictions, and it should be easily accessible wherever it could establish innocence. Legislation should also be bought in to preserve DNA evidence for any future trial.
  • Compensation for those who have been wrongly accused. Because it is profoundly difficult for those wrongfully convicted to enter back into society, they should always receive assistance and monetary compensation.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Douglas Parker

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