6 Common Causes
As of April, 2016, The National Registry of Exonerations lists 1,740 innocent people since 1989 who were wrongly convicted of serious crimes and have since been exonerated. That’s more than 60 every year; a rate that continues to grow with the improvement of DNA testing methods and databases.
How can such grievous mistakes be so common?
1. MISTAKEN EYEWITNESS IDENTIFICATION
Why is this so prevalent? Partly because of simple human error (our eyes are not camcorders, and our memories are not predictable storage devices like computer hard drives), and this is exacerbated in many cases by poor procedures of law enforcement in dealing with witnesses.
2. FALSE & COERCED CONFESSIONS
Why would an innocent person confess to a crime they did not commit? There are a number of factors, and mostly they fall under 3 categories: duress, diminished capacity, or ignorance. Duress can be either through the stress of the situation, or because of police or prosecutorial misconduct. Diminished capacity may be due to their mental state (temporary or chronic), or because of intoxication. And some accused persons are simply ignorant of the law or of their rights, or may misunderstand their situation.
3. PERJURED INFORMANT TESTIMONY
In 15% of wrongful convictions, the case presented against the innocent at trial included statements by incentivized witnesses (often referred to as “snitch” testimony). As many as 45% of capital cases later overturned included one or more such witnesses. Jailhouse “snitches” will often give false statements in the hope of gaining either favors in prison or reduced sentences.
4. TUNNEL VISION
5. FORENSIC ERROR
This “tunnel vision” can continue beyond the police investigation to the prosecution phase. Prosecutors, feeling that the preponderance of evidence points to the guilt of the accused, may suppress evidence to the contrary. The Supreme Court ruled on this in Brady V Maryland (1963) as a violation of the due process required under the Fourteenth Amendment, but cases are regularly reported where it still occurs.
6. INADEQUATE DEFENSE REPRESENTATION
In 1984, the Supreme Court established standards for determining when a defendant’s right to counsel has been violated because of said counsel’s inadequate performance (Strickland V Washington). Such ineffectiveness, however, is usually difficult to prove. From instances of gross negligence and malpractice through to honest mistakes due to inexperience or workload, poor lawyering continues to result in wrongful convictions.