The number of innocent people in our prisons and jails today is higher than ever before. The high rate of exonerations is enough proof of the unreliability of the criminal justice system. The major contributors to wrongful convictions include the reliance on mistaken eyewitnesses and junk science, and the lack of accountability for prosecutors and police, among other things. These wrongful convictions have undermined the reputation of the U.S. justice system and ruined many innocent people’s lives.
Research On The Causes Of Wrongful Convictions
NIJ-funded researchers at the American University sought to find why innocent people are wrongfully convicted and acquitted in others. These scholars also researched the policy interventions that would help prevent future erroneous convictions. The focus of this study was 460 violent felonies that took place between 1980 and 2012.
The researchers weren’t interested in the factors that caused innocent people to enter the criminal justice system. They were interested in why some innocent people are convicted, and others released. The scholars used a case comparison method in the study. 260 cases of innocent defendants who were exonerated were matched with 200 near-miss cases of innocent defendants who were acquitted before trial.
The study identified 10 factors that contributed to the wrongful conviction of innocent defendants instead of an acquittal or dismissal. These factors included:
- A criminal history
- A younger defendant
- Prosecution failed to disclose evidence
- The prosecution’s case was weak
- A weak defense
- Witness misidentification
- A lying eyewitness
- Misinterpretation of forensic evidence
- Defendant presented a family member as a witness
- A punitive justice system
A team of criminal justice professionals further analyzed 39 cases to identify how the ten factors were linked and whether tunnel vision contributed to the outcome of these cases. Tunnel vision arises when criminal justice experts pay too much attention on prosecuting a suspect while overlooking evidence that proves their innocence.
Recommendations For Preventing Wrongful Convictions
The findings of the study indicate there’s a problem in the criminal justice system that causes the indictment of the innocent and prevents the acquittal or dismissal of innocent defendants after they go through the criminal justice system. The study’s recommendations focus on defense practice, disclosing of exculpatory evidence, eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, forensic error, police misconduct, systematic failure, tunnel vision, and a weak prosecution.
1. Defense Practice
In defense practice, a defense lawyer should be more committed and dedicate enough time and resources for a strong defense. Insufficient resources and a high volume of caseloads pose a high risk of erroneous convictions. Furthermore, the accused should meet with his lawyer as soon as they’re charged or arrested, to allow them ample time for their lawyer to investigate the facts before an indictment or trial. Defense attorneys need to review all the evidence presented during the discovery stage.
2. Disclosing Exculpatory Evidence
Prosecutors need to have an open discovery policy. This may include holding discovery conferences where forensic evidence is presented. This approach would help both the prosecution and defense because withheld evidence would be difficult to use during an appeal.
3. Eyewitness Misidentification
There should be a standard of evidence to be met before law enforcement officers put someone in a lineup. The police should be careful not to jeopardize a defendant’s case through a misidentification. The lineup should be on the basis of the description of the suspect and not their appearance. This way a suspect’s appearance isn’t the basis on which a comparison is made. If there’s no description of the suspect, the police should use a mug book, which seems to be less prejudicial than a lineup.
4. False Confessions
Many people are less likely to make false confessions when they’re being videotaped because they’re under oath. To reduce the cases of false confessions, interrogations, and interviews should be videotaped. This acts as a reference point for the defendant and the police.
5. Forensic Error
To avoid forensic error, DNA tests and other forensic investigations should be done early in a case, so suspects are either ruled in or out. In many cases, these tests are conducted later when confirming what police or prosecutors believe. Police and prosecutors need basic education on forensic testing.
6. Police Misconduct
Many cases of wrongful convictions involve corrupt police. Jurisdictions should allow the defense counsel to review a police officer’s police record when building a case. This kind of practice would help improve the quality of the accused’s defense.
7. Systematic Failures
Police and prosecutors should have a list of items to weigh when they’re investigating a case. This includes forensic reports, the grounds of interrogation, and how to treat alibis. For example, alibis, especially last-minute alibis, should be investigated before the state spends a lot of time and resources in the case. Police departments should also consider isolating officers who’ve reported errors or near misses.
8. Tunnel Vision
Police and prosecutors need an impartial person when considering alternatives in a case. The impartial person will help cover all possible angles in the case. He/she will ensure the police and prosecutors don’t overlook the possibility that the accused is in fact, innocent.
9. Weak Prosecution
The prosecutors’ offices should assign prosecutors with more experience to lead charges against a defendant. A seasoned and skilled prosecutor would be better at screening evidence and using resources sparingly. There also should be a standard for indicting defendants. The prosecution must have better ways of determining whether there’s probable cause to hold the defendant.
Wrongful convictions can be stressful for the innocent party, especially after they serve considerable time behind bars. Most of these people suffer from emotional and mental problems after they’re exonerated. The state should implement some or all of the measures above to reduce the incidences of wrongful convictions in the U.S.