Wrongful Convictions: The Facts

On Wrongful Conviction Day, let's take a look at the facts of the matter.

A wrongful conviction is when a person is convicted of a crime they did not commit. Wrongful convictions are often the result of multiple failures— usually by investigators, witnesses, scientists, and lawyers— that can occur at various stages of the criminal justice process. Convictions are typically considered wrongful for one of two reasons: the person is factually innocent of the charges brought against them (which is why wrongful convictions are often known as cases of “actual innocence”), or the individual’s case involved procedural errors that violated their rights.

Wrongful convictions are often attributed to five common causes:

  1. Eyewitness Misidentification: years of scientific studies have consistently demonstrated that the use of eyewitness identification is flawed . Eyewitnesses are incredibly unreliable and the validity of eyewitness testimony, particularly when used for identifying perpetrators, is often greatly overstated in court. Eyewitness identification is particularly unreliable when it comes to cross-racial identifications: recent studies have found that people are 1.5 times more likely to falsely identify the face of a stranger of a different race than their own, which is another factor that contributes to false convictions.
  2. False Confessions: people may give false confessions for various reasons— they may have been incentivized to do so by threats or promises made during the interrogation; subjected to extended periods of time without food, drink, or sleep; or because of diminished capacity or mental impairment; youth; ignorance of the law; denial of Fifth Amendment right to counsel during interrogation; a simple misunderstanding; suggestive lines of questioning; or even torture.
  3. Bad Lawyering: ineffective, incompetent, and overburdened defense counsel often allow various other factors leading to wrongful convictions to go unchallenged in court. Ineffective assistance of counsel can take many forms, but most commonly it involves failing to investigate alibis or challenge shoddy forensic evidence, failing to file pretrial motions, failing to prepare opening or closing statements, and sleeping during trial.
  4. Unreliable Informant Testimony: informants often have incentives to testify against the defendant which they do not disclose to the jury, such as payment, avoiding criminal prosecution, or reducing a sentence. Informants may testify in multiple cases and use nefarious means to gather information necessary to support their false testimony.
  5. Unreliable or Improper Forensic Science: the use of “ junk science ”– such as microscopic hair comparison, firearm tool mark and impression evidence, bite mark analysis, shoe print comparisons, and faulty fire “ science ” – is a huge problem in many criminal cases. These forensic disciplines are unreliable and inaccurate, and experts in these fields will often testify to conclusions beyond even what the limited science on their subject allows.

Recent studies show that as many as 3-6% of all people incarcerated in U.S. prisons have been wrongfully convicted. This means that as many as 730 people incarcerated in West Virginia alone might actually be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Since 1989, the National Registry of Exonerations has recorded 2,645 exonerations in the United States, totaling 23,590 years lost in prison, with each person spending an average of 8.9 years in prison before release. 

Once a person has been wrongfully convicted, it’s extremely difficult to overturn their conviction. Going back to the two different types of wrongful convictions, there are two different reasons for which an individual can attempt to overturn a wrongful conviction: first, for cases of factual innocence, the individual can appeal on the basis of new factual evidence; and second, for cases in which the defendant’s rights were violated, by proving that their trial was unconstitutional. 

If a person can prove the existence of procedural errors during the course of the investigation and trial which violated their constitutional rights, then they can take their case to a Court of Appeals. Examples of this type of appeal include, among others, cases in which the police failed to properly obtain warrants, or the defendant was coerced to confess under duress (like physical or psychological abuse) from police officers. However, the bar for conclusively proving that an individual’s rights were violated is extremely high and the number of individuals who have succeeded in proving their cases is extremely low. 

If a person has been wrongfully convicted based on factual evidence, they can provide the court with new scientific evidence and appeal their conviction. The most common pathway for overturning wrongful convictions is through the use of post-conviction DNA testing. From 1989 to date, 367 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, and a shocking 21 of them served time on death row before being freed. However, even with strong scientific evidence, proving a person’s innocence is not that simple. 

The extreme difficulty in overturning a wrongful conviction stems from one of the biggest issues within the U.S. justice system: providing new evidence of an individual’s innocence is not enough to guarantee them an appeal. 

In 1993, the Supreme Court published a decision on a case that has since presented serious challenges for individuals attempting to appeal their conviction based on evidentiary claims of actual innocence. In the majority opinion for that case,  Herrera v. Collins, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that a claim of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence does not merit federal habeas relief. Essentially, this means that the constitutional presumption of innocence (or the idea of “innocent until proven guilty”) “disappears” if a person has been afforded a fair trial in accordance with their due process rights and is convicted of a crime; a person is only entitled to have their case heard by a Court of Appeals if they can prove that they were not afforded a constitutionally “fair” trial.

In other words, even if a lawyer can prove that there were serious errors in the defendant’s case— like if the science used at trial was wrong or outdated, an eyewitness was not reliable, or an informant was incentivized to lie on the stand— the defendant still does not have a right to have their case heard by a Court of Appeals. Many judges will refuse to hear appeals, despite the existence of new and credible evidence proving a person’s innocence, unless the appellant can prove that his or her constitutional rights were violated during their original trial, which is a very difficult process. As a result, wrongful convictions are extremely difficult to overturn largely because it is very hard for a person to even have their case heard by a Court of Appeals.

The West Virginia Innocence Project works to bring justice to those who have been wrongfully convicted and to reform the criminal justice system to prevent unjust imprisonment. To learn more about the work of the West Virginia Innocence Project and see recent news, visit our website here. Donations are instrumental in ensuring that we can continue to provide legal assistance to those who have been wrongfully convicted. If you would like to contribute, you can donate to the West Virginia Innocence Project here

If you’re interested in learning more about wrongful convictions and the work of the Innocence Project, be sure to check out the Innocence Files on Netflix! To learn more about proposed policy reform across the United States, and to see the current policies in West Virginia, visit the Innocence Project website here. You can also sign nationwide petitions here aimed at reforming the criminal justice system to end wrongful convictions.