Causes of Wrongful Convictions

A wrongful conviction not only devastates the innocent person and their loved ones; it diminishes the integrity of the criminal legal system and harms the public good. Police are led away from the real perpetrator, public safety is put at risk, and justice is not achieved.

As the number of DNA exonerations has grown across the country in recent years, wrongful convictions have revealed disturbing fissures and trends in our criminal legal system. Together, these cases show us how the criminal justice system is broken and how urgently it needs to be fixed. In each case where DNA has proven innocence beyond doubt, an overlapping array of causes has emerged – from mistakes and misconduct to factors of race and class.

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Eyewitness Misidentification

Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. Over 75 percent of DNA exoneration cases have involved convictions based on mistaken identification evidence. A variety of factors can affect the reliability of an identification, mainly the simple fallibility of human memory.

Unvalidated Forensic Science

Forensic science is a useful tool, but many forensic disciplines apply techniques and methods that have not been approved by the scientific community. Unvalidated forensic science, such as hair and fiber comparison and bite-mark analysis, have played a role in over 50 percent of convictions later overturned by the use of DNA evidence, proving that there has to be higher standards for forensic testimony at trial.

False Confessions

Innocent defendants have made incriminating statements, confessed, or plead guilty in approximately 25 percent of DNA exonerations in the United States. Multiple factors can contribute to false confessions, such as a defendant’s poor mental health and/or the use of coercive interrogation techniques. These factors result in an often threatened and confused defendant, who will confess to the crime in an attempt to relieve their current discomfort.

Jailhouse Informant Testimony

In 15 percent of convictions later overturned using DNA evidence, the defendant was imprisoned because an jailhouse informant testified against them. Jailhouse informants often have incentives to lie on the stand in order to escape prosecution themselves or receive shorter sentences. Jailhouse informant testimony is especially dangerous when such incentives are not disclosed to the jury, so they do not understand it could be bias. It is important to regulate the use of incentivized informants as to reduce the possibility that these unreliable witnesses mislead judges and juries.

Read the Kaufman Commission Report on Proceedings involving Guy Paul Morin

Police and Prosecutorial Misconduct

While most prosecutors and law enforcement officials are honest and have the best intentions to protect society, the pressure to secure a conviction at times may lead police and prosecutors  to act in an inappropriate, unfair, or unlawful manner. This government misconduct can include withholding or fabricating evidence, coercive interrogations by investigators, or suggestive methods used by police to obtain an identification. While police and prosecutorial misconduct is more likely in high profile cases with a great amount of press coverage, because law enforcement feels pressure to obtain a suspect.
In the case of Kenneth Waters, for example, the Ayer police both fabricated and withheld critical evidence and threatened witnesses to implicate Kenny, leading to his wrongful conviction. DNA tests proved Kenny’s innocence, and he was exonerated in 2001 by his sister, Betty Anne Waters, with help from the Innocence Project.

Poor Defense Lawyering

Defendants are guaranteed a right to counsel but an ineffective defense attorney can lead to the wrongful conviction of a factually innocent person. Inadequate defense lawyering can include the overall failure to prepare for trial, to investigate the crime and the defendant’s alibi, and to challenge witnesses and experts.

Systemic Racism and Implicit Bias

What is systemic racism?
Systemic racism shows up in our lives across institutions and society. It includes the wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, incarceration, drug arrests, immigration arrests, and infant mortality.

There is no obvious sign of America’s broken criminal justice system than that of the contrasting impact on people of color.

Criminalizing Race
Racially disparate system and its devastating consequences

  • African Americans are about six times likely to be incarcerated compared to their white counterparts.

  • The role of the criminal justice professional.

  • From time to time citizens who harbor racist attitudes make it onto juries where they are asked to judge those they hold in disdain.

Implicit racial bias
As humans we unconsciously have attitudes or stereotypes about race that help us understand the world around us. Our decisions in life are based on this understanding and we act upon them often unaware of our attitudes. This reflex response is known as Implicit Racial Bias (IRB).

IRB affects us all regardless of where our racial biases stand or our associations with members of other races.

IRB and stereotypes skew prosecutorial decisions in racially biased ways. This affects their discretion with charges, pretrial, trial, and post-trial strategies.

IRB works in three ways:

  • Who the police choose to monitor

  • How the police interpret the behavior of those they scrutinize

  • How they react to their conclusions


  • Research shows that when jurors are asked to recall facts, they are inclined to misremember information in racially biased ways.


  • They are also prone to “stereotype consistent memory errors” that has an impact on how they set bail, rule on pretrial motions and trial objections, assess guilt, determining instruction during jury trials, and appropriate sentencing.