- January 27th, 2020
- in Capstone Commentary
by Jaleel Washington
In a typical conviction, members of the police force gather evidence and eventually arrest the perpetrator. Prosecutors use this evidence to try to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt the perpetrator committed the crime. If they are found guilty, sentencing follows, and the rest is history. We do a good job of punishing the right people, but what happens when we punish the wrong person?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, wrongful conviction, also known as miscarriage of justice, is defined as “a situation in which someone is punished by the law courts for a crime that they have not committed”. Sounds bad, right? Unfortunately, many people in the US have no idea what a wrongful conviction is or how much of an impact it actually has on our society. To fully understand the contents of this post, it is important that I explain three things: 1) what is a wrongful conviction, 2) how it happens, and 3) things being done to help exonerate these innocent people.
What is wrongful conviction?
As stated earlier, wrongful conviction is defined as “a situation in which someone is punished by the law courts for a crime that they have not committed”. In laymen terms: someone who did not commit a crime is arrested, arraigned, prosecuted in a court of law, and sentenced to jail time. Their life is turned upside down because of something they ultimately did not do. Jobs are lost, and unable to be attained even if proven innocent later on, their reputation is ruined, freedom stripped away, and in some cases, people can experience alienation from their families.
It is easy to suppose that this does not happen as often as people assume it does, however, it occurs at a rate that is almost scary. The National Registry of Exonerations is a collaborative project by Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law that provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the US since 1989. In the time the project was started, they have found that there have been 2,360 exonerations in the US as of January 7, 2019. In the state of Alabama, there have been 28 exonerations. The state with the most exonerations in the US is Texas with 353 exonerations since 1989.
How does this happen?
There are several ways in which a wrongful conviction occurs. One way in which this occurs is mistaken witness identification. According to the glossary found on The National Registry of Exonerations website, mistaken witness identification is defined as a scenario in which “At least one witness mistakenly identified the exoneree as a person the witness saw commit the crime”. This means that one or more people who witnessed, or were victim, of the crime incorrectly identified the exonerated as the perpetrator. Since 1989 there have been, 673 cases where mistaken witness identity was a contributing factor in the exoneration.
Some other ways this occurs are false confession, perjury, official misconduct, misleading forensic evidence, and inadequate legal defense. Although it is possible for just one of these reasons to lead to a wrongful conviction, there are some cases where multiple or all the listed reasons lead to a wrongful conviction.
What’s being done?
There are many organizations that work with wrongfully convicted people. One organization is called The Innocence Project. For the past 25 years, The Innocence Project has worked tirelessly to help exonerate hundreds of wrongfully convicted people. In addition to their work in the courtroom, they do quite a bit of work on the legislative front by working with state legislatures to pass laws that help reduce the likelihood that someone is wrongfully convicted. On this webpage, you can see the number of states that have passed these laws and also see the laws that your state has in place to help reduce wrongful convictions.
There are also several cities who have designed Conviction Integrity Units. In the ABC drama Conviction, a similar unit was portrayed. In this show, the Conviction Integrity Unit investigated several cases to determine whether the right person was convicted of the crime. The basis of the show was what inspired me to do more research on wrongful conviction.
As of March of 2018, 33 cities have implemented Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs). Although this number may seem small, the number of them has increased steadily every year. CIUs are defined by The National Registration of Exonerations’ report on CIUs as “a division of a prosecutorial office that works to prevent, identify, and remedy false convictions.” They are by no means the innocence police. In other words, just because they review a case doesn’t mean there will be an exoneration to follow. It does give me hope that government officials have acknowledged that this is something that needs to be worked on and they are taking necessary actions to do so.
Wrongful conviction is something that has plagued our justice system for years. Although there is no way for us to right the wrongs of the past, it is exciting to see that we are learning from out mistakes and working to fix them. As we move forward, I hope that we will see more progress in exonerating the wrongfully convicted and making sure that fewer people are wrongfully convicted.