The number of wrongly convicted persons cannot be known with certainty, because no federal or state agency keeps track of exonerations, let alone wrongful convictions. Many news stories, reports, and books fairly describe wrongful convictions in detail, although not all of these wrongful convictions resulted in formal exonerations. In some of these cases, prosecutors insisted that the original verdict was accurate despite strong new evidence of factual innocence, further clouding an understanding of wrongful convictions.
Wrongful convictions occur when innocent defendants are found guilty in criminal trials, or when defendants feel compelled to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to avoid the death penalty or extremely long prison sentences. The term wrongful conviction can also refer to cases in which a jury erroneously finds a person with a good defense guilty (e.g., self-defense), or where an appellate court reverses a conviction (regardless of the defendant’s factual guilt) obtained in violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. This research paper deals with the first type of wrongful convictions, or wrong person convictions. Note also that the verdict of acquittal in American law is “not guilty” rather than “innocent,” meaning that an acquitted person might not be factually innocent. For the sake of clarity, the term actual or factual innocence is used to refer to persons who did not commit the crime. Miscarriage of justice (a legal term in England) is also used to describe wrongful convictions.
A wrongful conviction is a terrible injustice that is magnified when an actually innocent person spends years in prison or on death row. This has always been recognized by the U.S. legal system. The rising number of exonerations, however, and growing awareness that such injustices occur every day in American courts, raises profound doubts about the accuracy and fairness of the criminal justice system. This understanding is supported by considerable recent research. This surge in awareness and budding research has motivated a growing number of innocence projects, which work to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, to also propose justice policy reforms designed to reduce the number of wrongful convictions or to alleviate their effects. This research paper explains why wrongful conviction has become a prominent issue, the scope of the problem, its causes, and reform proposals.
The injustice of being convicted and imprisoned for a crime one did not commit is intuitively apparent. Research and anecdotal evidence shows that a high proportion of wrongfully convicted prisoners suffer severe psychological consequences, including posttraumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders, which is not typical among actually guilty prisoners in the absence of life-threatening experiences in prison. This complicates the ability of exonerated prisoners to return to a normal life after release.
More than half the states do not legally authorize financial compensation for persons who were victimized by the criminal justice system in this way, although the number of states with compensation laws has grown in recent years. Moreover, exonerated prisoners do not receive the services provided to prisoners released on parole. Newer compensation laws provide for health and restorative services, as well as financial compensation, to help exonerated prisoners. A person who has been exonerated does not have automatic grounds to sue and recover money damages against police or prosecutors. A number of such cases have been successful in recent years, but they are infrequent and successful only when specific wrongdoing by criminal justice agencies can be proven and immunity defenses overcome.