Common Factors of Wrongful Convictions … ?

Washington Institute for Public and International Affairs Research at American University has conducted a three-year study focusing on the identification of common factors in wrongful convictions. The results of the study have been published in a December 2012 summary titled Predicting Erroneous Convictions: A Social Science Approach to Miscarriages of Justice.

The study identifies forensic error, prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, and eyewitness misidentification among the common factors in wrongful convictions. The study suggests there is a notable difference between “causes” of erroneous convictions compared to “correlates” of wrongful convictions.

Missing so far in the literature is a study that asks how the criminal justice system identifies innocent defendants in order to prevent erroneous convictions. What we want to know – and thus what dictated our research strategy – is what factors are uniquely present in cases that lead the system to rightfully acquit or dismiss charges against the innocent defendant (so-called “near misses”), which are not present in cases that lead the system to erroneously convict the innocent.

The study identifies factors aiding to erroneous conviction of innocent defendants including:

  • Age and criminal history of the defendant
  • Punitiveness of the state
  • Brady violations
  • Forensic error
  • Weak defense and prosecution case
  • Family defense witness
  • Inadvertent misidentification
  • Laying by a non-eyewitness
  • False confessions
  • Criminal justice official error
  • Race effects
  • Tunnel vision

The study concludes that

increased attention to the failing dynamics of the criminal justice system, rather than simply isolated errors or causes, may lead to better prevention of erroneous convictions. …[The] results suggest that there should be greater emphasis at all levels and on all sides of the criminal justice system, including police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, to analyze and learn from past mistakes before they result in serious miscarriages of justice.

When I read “common factors” in wrongful convictions, I had to pause. Is the criminal justice system so flawed that there is a sufficient amount of wrongful convictions to conduct a study? Apparently so; an alarming number of wrongful convictions have emerged in the past decade(s) and the number keeps growing. The Innocence Project has been one of the leaders in the efforts to exonerate wrongfully convicted, currently showing 303 successfully exonerated individuals. But is exoneration after the fact enough? The study offers a different approach to erroneous convictions – an approach consisting of variety of steps to be taken early on in an investigation that would prevent the commission of erroneous convictions rather than dealing with the effects of wrongful conviction when damage to the wrongly accused and everyone around her has already been done.

Related Readings

See additional articles relating to wrongful convictions.

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