Wrongful Conviction- KU Conversation 7

By: Courtney Aaron

Good morning and welcome to our seventh KU Conversations post! This week’s topic is wrongful conviction. Some of you may have noticed that in recent years there has been a lot of news concerning wrongfully convicted people being released from prison after better forensic technology and organizations like the Innocence Project helped overturn their convictions. For that reason, we decided to look into the subject to learn why wrongful convictions happen; the effects they have on the wrongfully convicted; and ways to prevent and compensate for wrongful convictions.

To start off we have a book from JSTOR called “Wrongful Conviction: International Perspectives on Miscarriages of Justice.” This book focuses on the international perspectives and issues concerning wrongful convictions, specifically in the second (North American Perspective) and third (focuses on European and Israeli perspective) parts of the book. It goes in-depth by discussing the procedures some countries use that lead to wrongful convictions, mistakes that have been made, and even how susceptible some countries’ laws are to wrongful conviction. The book also provides some background history on wrongful conviction and the use of DNA evidence.

Next we are going to focus on the multiple causes of wrongful conviction. One major category is issues with the prosecutorial process. These issues can be unintentional or purposely malicious in nature. One example is prosecutorial misconduct. In this article from Legal Collection called “Prosecutorial Misconduct in the Digital Age”,  prosecutorial misconduct is defined as “… when a prosecutor deliberately engages in dishonest or fraudulent behavior calculated to produce an unjust result.” The article further explains that prosecutorial misconduct is hard to prove and to discipline. There are many reasons for this. Evidence of prosecutorial misconduct usually is revealed in longer trials. Also, the best people to report prosecutorial misconduct (other prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges) all have reasons not to report their fellow colleagues. The article also talks about how much easier it is to commit prosecutorial misconduct in the new digital age.


Photo provided by Joe Gratz

Seemingly harmless resources like social media can contribute to prosecutorial misconduct. We have an ebook from the Rohrbach Library called “Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and it’s Impact on the Innocent” by Daniel S. Medwed. In this book Medwed uses his experience in the courtroom and in the classroom to explain how prosecutors are told to convict criminals but also to protect the rights of defendants. He explains that this creates a “prosecution complex” meaning that having those dual goals can lead to a district attorney wrongfully convicting innocent people. The book follows the pretrial, trial, and post trial conviction phases of the process and examines how certain rules and biases can lead to wrongful conviction. Here is another book from the Rohrbach Library called “The Supreme Court on Trial: How the American Justice System Sacrifices Innocent Defendants” by George C. Thomas. This book focuses on the justice system as a whole and how the procedures the system uses can lead to wrongful conviction. Thomas explains that the system is too focused on procedures and not enough on substantial justice. Thomas suggests that the American Justice System imitate some of the French Justice System’s methods in that they create a separate court to review the claims of people who believe they were wrongfully convicted and evaluate new evidence for those cases.

Interrogations leading to false confessions are another major cause of wrongful convictions. “Police Interrogation and American Justice” by Richard A. Leo is an ebook in the Rohrbach Library that discusses police interrogation and how it can be misused and result in a false confession. Leo explains that while there are fair interrogations that lead to catching criminals there are also suspect interrogations that lead to false confessions and wrongful convictions.

There is also the supposedly infallible DNA evidence and fingerprinting. Surprisingly both of these can lead to a wrongful conviction. This article from JSTOR walks through the case of Stephan Cowens, the 141st person to be exonerated by forensic evidence. Cowen was actually wrongfully convicted because of fingerprint evidence and eyewitness testimonies. The article walks through all the different human errors that either were or could have been involved in causing Cowens wrongful conviction. Starting with how forensics didn’t match his prints until the second time and ending with how it was possible that the police accidentally implied that Cowen was a suspect while talking to the eyewitnesses. It raised multiple questions that challenge the infallibility of fingerprinting and eyewitness testimonies.


Picture provided by Public Domain Pictures.net

DNA evidence can lead to false results due to human error. This article from Criminal Justice Abstracts Database discusses “leaping DNA“. The article explains that DNA is transferable and can suggest that a person  was somewhere they weren’t. A group from the Victoria Police Forensic reenacted scenarios where real convictions were made because of DNA being found on victim’s clothing or murder weapons. They confirmed that it is easily possible to transfer DNA from one surface to another.


Cell Block D Isolation cells on Alcatraz Island, photo provided by Library of Congress

The effects of wrongful conviction are as alarming as the causes. There are effects not only to the victims of wrongful conviction, but to their families, and society. Effects can include separation of families, break-ups, divorces, job loss, and other short term and longterm effects. This is expressed in this article from Criminal Justice Abstracts Database. The article discusses how studies on wrongful conviction should be a higher priority in the academic criminology scene to better prevent and handle wrongful convictions. We have an ebook from the Rohrbach Library called “Life After Death Row Exoneree’s Search For Community and Identity” by Saundra Davis Westervelt. This book focuses on people who were convicted of capitol crimes, sentenced to death, and later exonerated. This book goes into the effects of wrongful conviction, as well as how the people cope, survive, and try to build new lives after exoneration. This article from Legal Collection focuses primarily on the social effects of wrongful conviction and discusses the idea that wrongful conviction means that the true criminal is still at large.

In light of the rising amounts of wrongful convictions there are many people wondering what can be done to prevent wrongful convictions and to compensate for them. This article, from Legal Collection, discusses false confession and how to better prevent them via legal counsel. There is an extensive list naming key moments in history where the law has changed to avoid situations like false confessions. It also mention other methods like making sure the video recording of the interrogation catches the whole interrogation and not just the confession. There has also been discussion about how to better improve forensic evidence and how it’s handled. We have both and ebook and print book of “Strengthening Forensic in the United States: A Path Forward” by multiple National Research Counsel (U.S.) Committees.

In terms of compensating people who have been wrongfully convicted we have an article from Criminal Justice Database that explains the different types of compensation that could be awarded goes into how there are issues with compensation for wrongfully convicted people. While roughly 37% of all wrongfully convicted people have been compensated there are states that don’t have any type of protocol to follow for people to receive compensation. All of the current methods of compensation have issues. For example, the lawsuit method can work but the officials involved are typically protected and the lawsuits are hard to win. The rest of the article offers suggestions and ideas on how to better improve compensation methods and better alternatives. It is alarming how hard it is for wrongfully convicted people to receive compensation considering it is publicly agreed upon that these people deserve their compensation. We have a study from Legal Collection that the public believes that wrongfully convicted people should receive compensation based on how long they’ve been incarcerated and how damaging the conviction was. The study also showed that the public believes that it would be in the criminal justice system’s best interest to do a public apology to the wrongfully convicted people, and that the public is deeply concerned about the escaped guilty parties.

There are many organizations and firms that are dedicated to taking on cases of wrongfully convicted people and helping them get exonerated. One of the most commonly recognized is the Innocence Project. It is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1992. Not only are they dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted peoples, but they also advocate for criminal justice reform to prevent further wrongful convictions. We found other organizations that are also dedicated to the same goals. There is the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the Center on Wrongful Convictions for Youths, the Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted (a non-profit based in Canada), and many others around the world.

How do you think compensation should be handled? What do you think is the biggest cause of wrongful conviction? Feel free to discuss in the comments section here or on the Rohrbach Library’s Facebook post!


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