According to a study of the National Registry of Exonerations records, more than 29,100 years have been “lost” in prison due to wrongful convictions since 1989. These lost years are the collective time wrongfully imprisoned people spent behind bars before they were pardoned, declared innocent, or their charges dismissed.
The National Registry is run by the University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University. It is intended to provide comprehensive information on exonerations nationwide, including the length of incarceration, the reason for the wrongful conviction, and demographic information of exonerated individuals. The Registry aims to prevent future wrongful criminal convictions by providing data about past errors.
The National Registry has kept records of criminal exonerations for 34 years; in that time, it has recorded more than 3,315 cases. On average, each of these exonerated victims of the legal system spent 8.9 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
All of these convictions were unjust. Many were based on insufficient evidence, false testimony, official misconduct, or forced confessions.
For example, Sidney Holmes was imprisoned at age 23 and served more than 34 years of a 400-year prison sentence for armed robbery based on nothing more than a flawed identification of an image of him at the scene before being exonerated. Similarly, Lamar Johnson was exonerated after serving 28 years of a life sentence for first-degree murder and armed criminal action after being falsely identified in 1995.
These types of cases are truly tragic. While the legal system is intended to prevent wrongful convictions through defense against false charges, hundreds of people are exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit every year. How do wrongful criminal convictions happen at all?
Why Do Wrongful Convictions Happen?
There are many reasons why people are wrongfully convicted of crimes. According to the University of Colorado’s Korey Wise Innocence Project, the most common reasons for false convictions include:
- Perjury: False testimony, or perjury, is the single most common factor leading to false convictions. 60% of all such cases are influenced by perjury by a witness. People may commit perjury for many reasons, such as securing their own plea bargains or dismissed charges, receiving money, or simply disliking the accused.
- Official Misconduct: The next most common cause of wrongful convictions is police or prosecutorial misconduct; it is present in 54% of these cases nationwide. If law enforcement or prosecutors violate the law or the suspect’s rights, it is considered misconduct, and any resulting conviction is considered wrongful. Examples of misconduct include concealing evidence, tampering with witnesses, withholding legal counsel, or coercing testimony or confessions.
- Eyewitness Misidentification: Eyewitness testimony is often considered one of the strongest forms of evidence in most criminal trials. It is used particularly often to identify potential criminal perpetrators. However, misidentifications are responsible for 28% of all wrongful convictions nationwide. Eyewitnesses may accidentally identify a suspect as the perpetrator if they share basic traits like race and gender. Furthermore, unconscious cues from police can encourage witnesses to identify a suspect as the perpetrator, even if they are unsure.
- Forced Confessions: 12% of all wrongful convictions nationally involve false or coerced confessions. These are confessions given by the convicted person that are not actually true. People may feel like confessing to something they didn’t do is the only option if they do not know their rights. Furthermore, police often use high-pressure techniques and even lie to suspects to convince them to confess to things they didn’t do.
- False, Misleading, or Withheld Evidence: Many types of so-called forensic evidence have been determined to be junk science. Even more reliable forms of evidence often have significant error rates. Expert witnesses, forensic scientists, and law enforcement may all provide misleading or false evidence to secure convictions. Meanwhile, prosecutors may withhold “exculpatory” evidence that would harm their case against the accused. These issues are found in 24% of wrongful convictions.
The Importance of Skilled Legal Representation to Prevent Wrongful Convictions
A lack of expert legal defense is one of the most common factors connected to wrongful convictions. People who rely on public defenders or do not receive legal counsel are more likely to be charged with crimes they did not commit, regardless of other factors in their case.
A skilled defense lawyer can accomplish many things on behalf of their clients, such as:
- Convincingly arguing your case. The most basic role of a defense attorney is to explain to the judge and jury why you should not be convicted of a crime under the law.
- Building sympathy with the judge or jury. Additionally, your lawyer will create sympathy on your behalf to counteract the natural bias of juries against the accused.
- Ensure all exculpatory evidence is presented during the trial. They will ensure no critical evidence supporting your innocence is left out of the case.
- Identify and fight back against official misconduct. If you face coercion, illegal searches, or other violations of your rights, your lawyer will advocate on your behalf.
- Prove instances of perjury. If a witness commits perjury, a good defense lawyer will work to prove that they have lied to the court.
Clearly, one of the most important factors in preventing wrongful convictions is working with a skilled defense attorney. It is important to note that public defenders often do not have the time or resources to accomplish these goals on your behalf. If you are seeking the best defense, it is crucial to speak with an independent defense attorney like M. Gabriela Guraiib. She and the experts at the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib are dedicated to defending clients against criminal charges in Redwood City, California. Learn more about how the right California defense attorney can help you avoid a wrongful conviction by scheduling your consultation today.