Causes of Wrongful Conviction

Nobody benefits from a wrongful conviction – except the real perpetrator, who remains free to commit additional crimes.

A wrongful conviction not only devastates the innocent person and his or her loved ones; it also harms the criminal justice system and the public good. Police are led away from the real perpetrator, victims are often re-traumatized, public safety is put at risk, public confidence is undermined, and justice is not achieved.

The major causes of wrongful conviction include…


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, at least in part, on mistaken identification evidence. A variety of factors can affect the reliability of an identification, including the circumstances of the witnessed event, individual characteristics of the witness, and the methods used by investigators to obtain the identification. Scientific research has shown that the risk of misidentification can be reduced by using specific identification procedures, such as double-blind, sequential lineups.

Research tells us that human memory is fallible and that simple changes to police procedure can help prevent eyewitness misidentification. While many police departments across New England, including Northampton, Wellesley, and Boston in Massachusetts, have implemented improved identification procedures, such procedures have not been universally adopted by the law enforcement community in the region.

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Unvalidated Forensic Science
Although forensic science can be a useful tool, many forensic disciplines apply techniques and methods that have not been scientifically validated. Unvalidated forensic science, such as hair and fiber comparison and bite-mark analysis, has played a role in over 50 percent of convictions later overturned by the use of DNA evidence. Forensic testimony sometimes goes beyond what can be properly inferred from the results of scientific testing. There need to be standards for including forensic testimony at trial.

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False Confessions
Exoneration cases in the United States have demonstrated that innocent individuals have confessed to crimes they did not commit. 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, including those affecting the psychology of a suspect (e.g., mental illness, intoxication, and age) and the use of coercive interrogation techniques (e.g., threats or promises of leniency). False confessions usually follow a suspect’s decision during an interrogation that confessing is somehow more beneficial to him than maintaining his innocence. Electronic recording of interrogations reduces the risk of false confessions and increases the reliability of confession evidence.

Video recording an entire interrogation provides the best evidence of all that occurred in the interrogation room. It can effectively resolve disputes about the substance and conditions of the interrogation and discourage false accusations of police misconduct. Although not required by law, many departments across the Commonwealth now record interrogations in cases involving serious offenses.

Snitch Testimony
An informant or snitch testified against the defendant in over 15 percent of convictions later overturned using DNA evidence. Snitches often have incentives to lie on the stand in order to escape prosecution themselves or to receive shorter sentences. Snitch testimony is especially dangerous when such incentives are not disclosed to the jury. It is important to regulate the use of incentivized informants as to minimize the likelihood that these traditionally 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 not prevalent in all wrongful convictions, these actions are more likely in high profile cases with a great amount of press coverage. In the case of Kenneth Waters, for example, the Ayer police both fabricated and withheld critical evidence and threatened and coerced 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 innocence person. Inadequate defense lawyering can include the overall failure to prepare for trial, and more specifically, the failure to investigate the crime and the defendant’s alibi, the failure to investigate identification procedures, the failure to challenge witnesses and experts, or the failure to come to court for hearings or even sleeping during trial. While poor defense lawyering is sometimes the result of lack of effort or incompetence, it can also be the result of an extremely overworked defense attorney.

In working to prevent wrongful convictions, all biological evidence should be preserved after trial and post-conviction DNA testing should be allowed when it might show innocence…

The nation’s DNA exonerations reveal the massive legal obstacles faced by the wrongly convicted trying to prove their innocence, and demonstrate that the traditional appeals process is insufficient. Further, DNA evidence available at the time of the defendant’s trial may never have been tested, or may have been tested with an older method, yielding inexact and unreliable results.

After the system fails and a person is wrongfully convicted, it is imperative to provide immediate services and compensation to the wrongfully convicted

Immediate services upon release and proper monetary compensation can enable a wrongfully convicted person to establish a successful life after prison. Although wrongfully convicted individuals can seek compensation under Massachusetts law by filing a civil suit, the Commonwealth does not provide immediate support funding or services upon release.

© 2011 New England Innocence Project