More often than most of us would like to admit, the criminal justice system gets it wrong: offenders are left to walk free while innocent people lose years locked up for a crime they didn’t commit.
The Reality of Wrongful Convictions in the USA
Such a phenomenon is prolific within the current U.S. prison population. A 2018 study by Charles Loeffler deduced that around 6% of those currently behind bars had been falsely incarcerated. With more than 2.8 million inmates in America, that means over 168,000 people are sitting behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.
Despite efforts to address this systematic issue through means of exonerations and criminal appeals, the scary reality of wrongful conviction remains a looming threat.
Eyewitness Misidentification Leads the Causes of Wrongful Convictions
As I discuss in the book Eyewitness Misidentification in Criminal Trials, the largest contributing cause of wrongful convictions is mistaken eyewitness identification, which accounts for as many as 75% of the unfair incarcerations.
According to The Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law, of those people who are on death row and eventually released due to DNA exoneration, approximately 75% were convicted in cases where an eyewitness was the primary form of evidence.
Eyewitness misidentification is a problem for a multitude of reasons. Among those are current police procedures using what are called “show-ups” and “lineups.” A show-up involves an officer bringing the witness to the suspect and asking the witness if they recognize the suspect as the perpetrator. The officer may present one suspect or multiple suspects at different times. Show-ups typically occur shortly after the crime, sometimes even at the scene.
There is a great deal of suggestiveness in show-ups, with the suspect often being presented in shackles. The witness often assumes the investigator has additional evidence linking the suspect to the crime.
Properly conducted lineups can prevent the suggestiveness of show-ups. However, lineups are plagued with problems as well. Police often present biased information to the witness.
Lineups involve showing a witness photos or conducting an in-person, live lineup. They may present multiple people to a witness simultaneously or one at a time. When a person is presented with six photos or a simultaneous photo lineup, they often make a relative judgment and select the person who looks most like the perpetrator, as opposed to using absolute judgement, where they would select the actual perpetrator or indicate they do not appear in the lineup.
Witnesses are often encouraged to select someone instead of indicating no one in the lineup. Live simultaneous lineups have the same downfalls. During a sequential photo lineup, a witness would look at one photo at a time and indicate “yes” or “no” as to whether they think the person is the perpetrator. Sequential lineups are rarely used.
Another problem with eyewitness identification is the way that memory functions in humans. Memory does not take a photograph or video to be used later. Instead, it collects the gist of the information, which dissipates quickly. By the time a witness gets to trial, the testimony they present to jurors is not likely to be accurate.
Bias and discrimination often begin long before an eyewitness account lands the wrong person in court and may negatively affect multiple, less crime-associated ways of judging people, from discrimination in insurance claims to job interviews. Not being able to get a job or qualify for a loan can further impact how individuals appear to others, which can impact how eyewitness testimony can distort the truth.
Additional Causes That Must Be Addressed
In addition to eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated forensic evidence, government misconduct, inadequate defense, false confessions, and jailhouse informants also largely influence these erroneous and oftentimes baseless convictions.
As the second leading cause of wrongful convictions, improper forensic evidence is used in court more commonly than many might think. Deemed as “junk science” by many in the legal field, forensic evidence presents many issues, most notably with testing errors, improper interpretations, and false applications of the results to the circumstances of a case.
In the case of Anthony Ray Hilton, for instance, Hilton spent 30 years on death row after a false bullet match. Similarly, Beniah Dandrudge spent 20 years in prison after she received a wrongful conviction stemming from a false fingerprint match. Even more unsettling are the references to unverified, unscholarly sources (like media articles) in the cases that result in wrongful conviction.
Jurors Rarely Understand These Problems
A problem that occurs during trial is that jurors rarely know of the potential dangers of eyewitness identification, junk science, or any of the other issues that arise throughout the criminal process. For example, jurors often implicitly trust eyewitnesses and are ignorant to the bias that was likely used when identifying the defendant.
Similarly, jurors rarely question fingerprints or other scientific evidence that may have been erroneously collected. Unfortunately, in many cases, no amount of cross-examination can persuade a juror with underlying beliefs and assumptions.
Race, Gender, Disability Drive Numbers of Wrongfully Convicted Inmates
On top of these established causes for wrongful convictions within the United States lies a less visible force driving incarceration trends: discrimination within the justice system.
Minorities are often the ones targeted by these burdensome convictions. African Americans, who make up only 13% of the U.S. population, account for just below 50% of exonerations.
The staggering figures show that African Americans are around seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than white people and that those convicted are 50% more likely to be innocent than a white person who was convicted. Presumed guilty until proven otherwise, African Americans are often pitted against a system built against them.
Other groups face these similar challenges. Latino men, for instance, are three times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, while Native Americans are twice as likely.
These disparities stretch across genders as well. Women, for instance, are three times as likely as their male counterparts to be convicted of a crime that never actually happened. With this upwards trend, we saw an 835% growth in the number of females in state prison from 1978 to 2015, a rate much faster than men.
Those with disabilities are also seen disproportionately prosecuted and wrongly convicted. Seen as scapegoats because of their diminished mental or physical state, people with disabilities are all that much more vulnerable to the fate of false incarceration.
In the case of Richard Lapointe, a defendant who was a mentally disabled man with only a loose connection to the victim, he was coerced by police who took advantage of his mental state to elicit a false confession which was used to convict him.
What Can We Do to Get Justice?
How can we get justice for those who have fallen victim to the flawed criminal justice system? This question remains at the center of the legal and political realm, forcing people to evaluate how to evoke positive change.
In efforts to help those wrongfully incarcerated, steps can be taken to help them secure post-conviction relief. This can take the form of an appeal to challenge the court’s ruling in its entirety and overturn the conviction.
Once exonerated, support from social networks and programs can help these exonerees rebuild their future after all the years they have lost. This can include expungement, job training, and other types of re-entry assistance.
Those who have previously been or are currently incarcerated may have difficulty getting life insurance from most major carriers and may require the help of an attorney to get access to the financial tools that many other people take for granted. Generally, life insurance for inmates is limited to burial and final expenses. Demanding justice and better access to health and financial services for inmates is a must.
Helping Those Who Have Been Wrongfully Convicted
As of 2021, around 2,857 people have been exonerated in the United States, a feat facilitated by advances in DNA testing technology and the pursuit of appellate action.
If you know someone who has been wrongfully convicted of a crime that they did not commit, it is important that you seek legal assistance, whether that is in the form of a practicing criminal appeals attorney or a separate organization that offers similar support.
On the national level, for instance, The Innocence Project, ACLU, National Center for Reason and Justice (NCRJ), and Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC) are organizations that help support the needs of the wrongfully incarcerated. On the local level, national organizations, like the Innocence Project, have state chapters that help to provide more customized and personalized services.
Despite the overwhelming number of wrongfully accused who are currently incarcerated, actions made by these organizations, and others to fight the system, offer hope to many. Nevertheless, the issue of wrongful conviction remains all too prominent in the United States, and it is only by advocating for our own rights and those of others that we can truly Let Freedom Ring!
About the Author
Aaron Spolin is a criminal appeals attorney at Spolin Law P.C. He has dedicated his practice to fighting for those who have been wrongfully convicted throughout the United States. His book, Witness Misidentification in Criminal Trials, is now available in paperback.