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Wrongful Convictions in the US Judicial System Essay

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Updated: May 21st, 2020


The criminal justice system in any nation serves the principal purpose of crime control and prevention. It also fosters the achievement of justice. It constitutes a powerful component of preventing crimes, especially to the US citizens who fall victim to criminal activities, concerns. Indeed, Wellford states that effective judicial systems are the ones which “are fair, respond equally to individuals, afford individuals the full rights that are attributed to them by their society, and which seek to reinforce the community’s desire for crime control and justice” (57). In this context, wrongful convictions subvert the purpose for which the judicial system is established in the US. Wrongful conviction is costly to society. A testimony beyond any doubt that a suspect engaged in criminal activity leads to his or her conviction.

In this sense, convictions ensure that the judicial system does justice not only to the victim but also to the society by eliminating a potential threat. A false conviction implies a failure to eliminate the threats. Injustice is also done to wrongfully convicted people. As such, the criminal justice system fails in delivering effective, efficient, and unswerving fair judicial process in the best interests of the public. This situation highlights the importance of determining and evaluating the causes of wrongful convictions to minimize costs, such as maintaining wrongfully convicted people in prisons and/or the cost of living with potential threats. From this perspective, this paper focuses on discussing why many people are wrongly convicted in the US judicial system.

Prevalence of Wrongful Convictions

Before discussing the possible causes of wrongful convictions, it is important to consider how the problem plays out in US society. Norris confirms that the number of people who are identified as wrongly convicted increases as more cases continues to be revisited (1302). Since the successful prosecution in 1989 of the first case that involved DNA testing in the US, Innocence Project, which is an advocacy group that fights for the rights of wrongly convicted persons, claims that there were 272 people who had been exonerated by 2011 (Norris 1302). The organization only considers cases where DNA evidence has been retained after a conviction to permit re-testing. It estimates that such cases only account for about 10% of all criminal convictions in the US (Norris 1302).

In nations where the number of homicides exceeds 20,000 every year, the figures quoted by Innocence Project fall within the acceptable limit of errors in convictions. This finding is perhaps a valid inference upon considering that the errors have occurred within two decades. However, this number is only a piece of a submerged iceberg. Acker informs that advocates for reform in judicial systems assert that DNA testing only encompasses a conclusive approach to a successful conviction in few criminal cases (‘The Flipside Injustice of Wrongful Convictions’ 1630).

This claim suggests that there are many more wrongfully convicted people in prisons whose ability to prove their innocence is void due to the inexistence of any retained DNA evidence. Indeed, DNA testing is only important in crimes that involve DNA exchange, such as massacre and rape. In most cases, it is only reliable where a murder preceded a rape event so that sufficient DNA for testing becomes available. Nevertheless, this plan does not imply that DNA must always be preserved even in these two classes of crimes. It is also not dispositive in all situations to the identity of crime perpetrators (Garrett and Neufeld 26).

The above observations suggest that the prevalence levels of wrongful convictions may be more than the figures cited by the Innocent Project. In 2007, Risinger, a law professor at Seton Hall, studied 328 different cases of exonerations involving convicts of felonies such as murder and rape from 1989 to 2003. In his study that was featured in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, he also compared these cases to various cases involving rape or murder, which DNA accounted as a crucial factor in their successful prosecution (Radley par.20). He deduced that the total number of people who were convicted to death accounts for 1% of the entire prison population in the US, while exonerated people took 22%. Hypothetically, assuming that persons who are wrongly convicted to life imprisonment also account for 1% as in the case of those convicted to death as argued by professor Resinger, a 2% (about 46,000) of the US prisons’ population might have been wrongly convicted to either life imprisonment or death penalty by 2008.

The above hypothetical figure for wrongful convictions in the US attracts high criticism, with commentators claiming that it is too high. For instance, Joshua Marquis, Clatsop County’s DA, criticizes the sediments raised by Risinger and statistics from the Innocence Project. He maintains that although wrongful convictions may occur, they are uncommon. He further suggests that he will even consider resigning if he, for sure, knows that 2 to 5% of all prisons’ population was innocent (Radley par.26). However, whatever the actual number of wrongful convictions, it is a necessary cause of alarm, especially by noting the upward trend of the number of cleared cases of wrongful convictions. In 2009 alone, such cases stood at 22 (Radley par.28).

In particular, in places such as Dallas, where DAs have dedicated their resources in the identification of wrongful convictions, much exoneration has taken place. How many of such cases will be identified if all states engage in this activity? Acceptance of fault in the judicial system entangles one of the ways that attract the process of digging even deeper into the likelihood of more cases of wrongful convictions. However, the ultimate solution rests on avoiding wrongful convictions. The next section discusses the role played by police, prosecution misconducts, evidence preparation, forensic evidence, false identification of eyewitness, and witness testimony in wrongful convictions. These aspects reveal why there are many wrongful convictions in the US criminal judicial system. The bar graph in fig.1 below shows the percentage contribution of some of these factors in wrongful convictions.

Causes of Wrongful Convictions.
Fig. 1: Causes of Wrongful Convictions. Source: (Innocence Project par.7).

How Witness Testimony affects the Court’s Decision about Convictions

Successful prosecutions require the existence of adequate evidence. Prosecutors in many states largely depend on testimonies made by victims through the identification of culprits. Unfortunately, while oral testimonies that are given by victims may be a true representation of the suffered injuries, they may lead to the conviction of the wrong person. This case implies that the witness testimonies compel the jury to make decisions to convict people for a crime they never committed. In support of this claim, Acker (a) posits that since time immemorial of the judicial system, nothing convinces the jury better than people pointing at the defendant and confidently proclaiming ‘he is the person’ (‘The Flipside Injustice of Wrongful Convictions’ 1630). In some situations, eyewitnesses’ testimony convinces the jury to the extent that it outweighs any tabled evidence for no wrongdoing.

Although courts have historically relied on witness testimonies in arriving at their decisions, concerns over the credibility and reliability of witnesses, especially upon the occurrence of incidences of wrongful identification, have emerged. An important example of these concerns involves the situation of informant testimonies. Gould and Leo claim that various wrongful convictions have resulted due to inaccurate testimonies that are tabled by police informants who lie intentionally for individualistic gains (851). Worse still, the informants receive rewards without any evaluation of the accuracy and reliability of their evidence. To exemplify the role of witness testimonies in wrongful convictions, Gould and Leo discuss Jeffrey Cox, a resident of Virginia, who was convicted for a rape crime, which he never committed (851).

Based on the evidence tabled in the courthouse, the jury was convinced that Jeffrey Cox committed the crime. The decision was arrived at based on testimonies that were made by two witnesses. However, the court and the defense did not possess information that the witnesses had pending felony charges. Due to this challenge, Gould and Leo quote a judge of the federal appellate opposing the historical approach of relying on witness testimonies, especially the ones, which involve informant witnesses. The judge says, “The government relies too heavily on witnesses who are ‘rewarded criminals,’ hence compromising both the accuracy and legitimacy of the criminal justice system” (Gould and Leo 852). Reliability of witness testimonies in arriving at courts’ decision becomes even problematic upon considering the mistaken eyewitness identification in contributing to wrongful convictions.

Mistaken Eyewitnesses

The evidence of an eyewitness is important for convicting people of felonies. However, Norris reveals that it constitutes one of the most significant contributors to wrongful convictions (1304). The author cites evidence for this assertion from research that was conducted by Gross and others who found mistaken identification in 219 cases of 340 instances of wrongful conviction from 1989 to 2003 (Norris 1305). In these cases, misidentification accounted for more than 76% of 250 DA exonerations. It was also responsible for more than 50% of death penalty convictions (Norris 1305). This finding perhaps reveals why it encompasses one of the most preferred areas of research in wrongful convictions.

A major concern on mistaken identifications involves eyewitnesses’ perception and memory retention, together with the ability to retrieve information accurately. This capacity influences the dependability and reliability of various identifications made by eyewitnesses. Gould and Leo assert that false identifications emanate from erroneous psychological judgments (841). Strenuous conditions experienced during the process of committing crimes may trigger the inability to perceive, retain, and retrieve information accurately.

For instance, Gould and Leo assert, “When confronted with a gun or another weapon during a violent crime, for example, the victim may focus so heavily on the firearm that he or she cannot take in and remember well the details of the perpetrator” (841). They further suggest that the impacts are highly pronounced in situations where the crime perpetrator and the victim originate from different races. This finding suggests that inaccuracies and inconsistencies exist between reports and certainties of eyewitnesses.

In 1990, the psychological-law division for the APA (American Psychological Association) convened a committee that was tasked with evaluating evidence on the approaches of identifying crime perpetrators. The committee reported that the identification procedure was mainly based on relative judgments by eyewitnesses, rather than absolute judgments (Norris 1305). The report echoed research evidence that eyewitnesses are more likely to identify the perpetrator who most likely resembles the actual culprit. The worst situation occurs when the actual culprit may not be in the identification parade. Higher probabilities for making false identification occur when eyewitnesses believe the culprits are in the identification parade, and that they must arrive at positive identification (Norris 1306).

While arriving at conviction decisions, courts rely on the confidence that is expressed by eyewitnesses as an important factor in determining the accuracy of culprit identification. Therefore, the correlation between positive identification accuracy and eyewitnesses’ confidence amounts to an important factor that may mitigate the probability of false conviction (Norris 1306). People who look for facts in a specific case also tend to rely more on the evidence provided by eyewitnesses who show impeccable confidence in attributing their accusation to culprits who are positively identified with confidence. Research evidence indicates that the eyewitness identifications, which have been made with high confidence levels, tend to be more precise and accurate compared to identifications that are made by people who possess little confidence (Norris 1306). However, eyewitness confidence at the investigation stage only accounts for a portion of successful prosecution followed by the conviction of the correct culprit.

Confidence that is portrayed by eyewitnesses during testimonies influences the process of evidence interpretation by juries. In this context, Norris asserts, “Studies have consistently reported that mock jurors are likely to judge identifications as more reliable when witnesses express confidence in them while testifying” (1307). This assertion is incredibly important upon noting that confidence levels by eyewitnesses vary as they recover from psychological shocks that are associated with perpetration of the crime. Faulty memory, briefing during pre-trials, and post-identification interrogation may also cause variations in eyewitnesses’ confidence, which may lead to wrongful convictions.

How the Desire to Convict a Suspect influences Evidence Preparation

Similar to the members of the public, the situation of prosecutors, police, and even some judges depicts them as vulnerable to the implications of tunnel vision while making their decisions. During evidence preparation, the higher the law enforcement personnel gets convinced about a given conclusion, specifically, about the probability of guiltiness of a given suspect, the lower the probability of holding a contravening opinion (Gould and Leo 851).

As such, desires to convict a suspect develops, which also potentially influences the evidence preparation processes. When law enforcement agents have the desire to convict a suspect on the grounds of adequate presumption of guiltiness of the suspect, the chances are that they will filter and segregate evidence information. Their goal is to build a strong case that has the ability to offset the capacity of the defense to raise convincing doubts in the minds of the jury. Thus, the desire to convict leads to distortion of evidence so that it ignores any other point of view that may prove the innocence of a given suspect.

Ignorance of evidence, which may prove the incorruptibility of suspects, exposes people to the risk of prosecution and subsequent wrongful conviction. Indeed, the desire to convict suspects affects all stages of evidence preparation. For instance, police officers may be swept away by witness identifications to the extent that they fail to consider any possibility of false identification (Acker ‘Wrongful Convictions Then and Now’ 1209). While preparing evidence, such law enforcement agents will tend to focus more on evidence, which develops the case than that which destroys it. The law enforcement agents have in their strong belief mind that the identified individuals are the real perpetrators and that they are guilty, just like the charged people. Thus, their main concern is on gathering and preparing evidence that equally convinces the jury to convict the suspects.

A scenario that is similar to the one described above may also happen at forensic testing laboratories. For instance, forensic scientists who work on the ‘hair match’ strategy by relating the hair of the suspect with the one collected at the crime scene may encounter large enough matches that they prematurely consider the suspect guilty (Gould and Leo 851). Although such scientists may be required to conduct fingerprints profiling as supportive evidence, the ‘hair match’ evidence may compel them to have the desire to convict the suspect. Consequently, they may falsify or conduct fingerprints profiling incorrectly. This situation leads to false testimonies that often lead to prosecution and later to wrongful convictions.

The sufficiency of the evidence in terms of amounting to conviction depends on how it was developed and prepared right from the occurrence of a crime. Police officers respond to any crime first than anyone else who is involved in the trial processes. Therefore, the process of gathering, recording, preserving, and documenting the evidence helps determine the necessary factors that may reveal the accurateness of the evidence. While the probability of human mistake exists in these processes, intentional misconduct may also occur. Depending on whether police officers have a desire to convict a suspect or not, they may fabricate, mishandle, or even suppress evidence. These conducts may be carried out in the quest to build stronger cases against potential perpetrators, hence translating to wrongful convictions.

Role of Police in Wrongful Convictions

Police officers play a significant role in the false identification and/or in building the confidence of eyewitnesses that they have positively identified as the culprit. This case may lead to the distortion of reports that are compiled by witnesses, which the judges rely upon in arriving at their decisions. Gould and Leo support this position by claiming that police or any other law enforcement officer may create suggestiveness, which may translate into a faulty identification process (842).

The authors suggest two main ways in which suggestiveness may arise. Firstly, they assert that police officers can confirm the identification made in some situations by eyewitnesses either in a court or after first identification (Gould and Leo 842). For instance, police officers may congratulate witnesses on the accounts of confirming their suspicions. This situation leads to increased confidence that eyewitnesses have made actual and accurate identification.

Secondly, in the identification parade, police officers, or any other law enforcement personnel may suggestively induce false identification. This event may occur in situations where a given suspect is portrayed in an appealing manner in relation to others (Gould and Leo 842). For instance, in the identification process, the police may avail one colored snapshot for probable suspects while all others are in black-and-white. Similar problems may also emerge when there is only one person of a given race, height, or body size in an identification parade, yet he or she resembles the actual perpetrator. Possibilities are that witnesses potentially identify a person who stands out in comparison with others. They then replace him or her with the actual perpetrators in their memory. As a result, any subsequent evidence leads to a wrongful conviction.

Police may also engage in cover-ups, which often lead to the conviction of the wrong person. While this situation is inappropriate and regrettable misconduct in law enforcement practices, it occurs in some situations. For instance, after the occurrence of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, four policepersons who were deployed in New Orleans opened their fires on six innocent and unarmed people. Two of the victims succumbed to injuries. Sergeant Kaufman was assigned the responsibility of investigating the crime.

Sergeant Kaufman attempted to engage in the criminal cover-up. Among many plans for a cover-up, the police officers fabricated witnesses and alleged that Lance Madison, an innocent person, had opened fire on them, which in response induced the police to fire at the unarmed people. Indeed, the allegation had the repercussions of the arresting of Madison on accounts of attempted murder. The truth was that Madison was a victim of false accusations and suffered innocently while at the prison for three weeks. His release occurred upon determination of the fact that he was only a culprit of police malpractices and engagements in the cover-up. If the police, through Sergeant Kaufman, had succeeded in the cover-up, Madison would have joined the population of wrongful convicts in the US prisons.

How Government/Prosecution Misconduct affects Wrong Convictions

Prosecutors represent the government’s interest in the proceedings of criminal cases. Hence, their contributions to wrongful convictions merely express the indirect role of the government in wrongfully convicting its citizens. Most prosecutors in America abide by their ethical obligations while handling various cases in an effort to ensure equal applicability of justice to both the suspects and victims. Ethical responsibility in prosecution includes the dismissal of any criminal charges that are brought against an individual, which prosecution does not have sufficient evidence to establish.

However, Gould and Leo say that prosecutors can “engage in overly suggestive witness coaching, offer inappropriate and incendiary arguments, or fail to disclose critical evidence to the defense” (854). All these misconducts may translate into wrongful convictions. In some situations, the police may fail to forward important information to the prosecutor who, in turn, avails it to the defense. The prosecutor may not even have an awareness of the existence of the information in his or her files.

Edward Honaker and Scottsboro Boys’ cases exemplified how prosecution misconducts may lead to wrongful convictions. In Honaker’s case, a victim, together with her boyfriend’s false testimonies, led to his rape conviction. A police officer had compiled a report claiming that the victim was never permitted to have full visibility of the alleged perpetrator of sexual assault (Gould and Leo 855). The report further indicated that both the victim and her boyfriend had undergone hypnotization for a period of four months following the occurrence of the alleged crime. In this period, the two parties identified a snapshot of Honaker as one that was depictive of the actual crime perpetrator.

The prosecution never availed the police officer’s report to the defense. Instead, the prosecution’s witness proceeded to testify against Honaker during the trial process without defense’s awareness that the prosecution withheld some vital information, which would create probabilities of doubt with regard to positive perpetrator identification (Gould and Leo 855).

In the Scottsboro Boys’ case, nine African-American boys were convicted of rape. Acker informs that they were “convicted of and sentenced to death for raping two white women while on a train going through Northern Alabama” (‘Wrongful Convictions Then and Now’ 1208). Immense false confessions characterized the case. Various defendants engaged in a counter-accusation for committing the alleged crime. Some eyewitnesses claimed to have had a direct observation on eventualities of the crime while located in a position, which raised doubts on what they proclaimed to have seen (Acker ‘Wrongful Convictions Then and Now’ 1208).

Evidently, witnesses also lied. Testimonies of medical experts confirmed that sustained injuries accrued from gang rape due to the presence of the victims’ semen. Prosecutorial misconducts also ailed the case. The prosecutor in charge of the case drew the attention of the adjudicators by requesting them to depict that justice in the state of Alabama does not equate to Jewish money that was acquired from the state of New York. This statement was made with reference to Leibowitz, the lawyer representing the suspects. Although he intensively objected, his mistral motion was denied. The jury convicted the boys wrongfully.

Role of Forensic Evidence in Wrongful Convictions

Forensic science plays an instrumental role in the process of criminal evidence preparation and prosecution of culprits. Amid its significant roles in judicial systems in the US, forensic science also presents an enormous paradox. For instance, DNA testing acts as an important tool that is sort by the Innocence Project for driving its agenda of exoneration of wrongfully convicted people in the US. Indeed, this approach has led to the restoration of freedom to about 272 people who were wrongfully convicted (Norris 1322).

In spite of the effectiveness of forensic evidence to provide grounds for exoneration, it contributes to immense cases of wrongful convictions in the US judicial system. For instance, Garrett and Neufeld report that about 57% of the total cases (200 exoneration involving DNA testing) that they studied were founded on evidence with strong support from forensic science (11). Norris believes that forensic testing errors emanate from poor training, sloppiness, and cognitive biases, among others (1320).

Courts recognize the role of forensic science in judicial systems by noting it provides a powerful tool for basing conviction decisions, although it may be misleading in some situations. Consequently, in the best interest of the suspects, reliable forensic methods such as DNA testing find applications in the US judicial system in a bid to mitigate the possibilities of wrongful convictions.

Garrett and Neufeld criticize the above presumption by claiming that DNA testing does not solve all challenges that are associated with forensic testimonies (12). In fact, DNA has only replaced a few of the forensic approaches that are used to prepare evidence. For instance, it does not replace alternative forensic investigation approaches that are deployed when a running thief shoots an individual because he or she does not leave any semen behind. It is also crucial to note that DNA analysis is prone to falsify or inaccuracies in terms of result interpretation during trials. Garrett and Neufeld conclude that amid the availability of DNA technology as a reliable tool for forensic evidence gathering, errors that are prevalent in old forensic evidence preparation procedures, misconduct, and misinterpretations have not changed in any way (97). This situation leaves room for possible wrongful convictions, even in an era of the availability of reliable DNA testing technology in the criminal judicial system.

Wrongly convicted Women

From discussions in other sections, it is evident that most wrongful convictions involve men, especially by noting that they typically involve rape and murder. However, the law does not segregate people in terms of gender or any other demographic typology. Women are equal culprits of wrongful convictions (Acker ‘The Flipside Injustice of Wrongful Convictions’ 1640).

In many cases, crimes that are committed by women to the extent of leading to death or life penalty convictions involve accusations of the murder of close relatives such as ex-husbands, husbands, and children. Consequently, when going through a trial, women also encounter psychological challenges that are associated with dealing with the pain of losing loved ones. In such strenuous conditions, any highly pressurized interrogative methodology renders them prone to false confessions or even making suggestive exculpatory comments.

A particular situation that leads to the wrongful conviction of women emerges in the event of accidental deaths or natural deaths. From a traditional perspective, women are caregivers and protectors. Hence, high probabilities exist for accidental deaths and natural deaths to occur in their presence. When such deaths become mistaken as cases of homicide, physical evidence may prove, without doubt, their involvement in the crime. Gould and Leo assert that courts rely incredibly on physical evidence that incriminates the suspects to murder (833). As a result, women are unable to convince the jury of their innocence in the alleged cases of murder of their children and other people who are dying under their care, either accidentally or naturally. Where forensic evidence is sought to prove the presence of the alleged perpetrator in a crime scene, the fact that women may be caring for a child may increase the chances of positive identification.

Works Cited

Acker, James. “The Flipside Injustice of Wrongful Convictions: When the Guilty Go Free.” Albany Law Review 76.3(2013): 1629-1672. Print.

Acker, James. “Wrongful Convictions Then and Now: Lessons to Be Learned.” Albany Law Review 73.4(2010): 1207-1211. Print.

Garrett, Brandon, and Peter Neufeld. “Invalid Forensic Science Testimony and Wrongful Convictions.” Virginia Law Review 95.1(2010): 1-97. Print.

Gould, Jon, and Richard Leo. “Justice In Action: One Hundred Years Later: Wrongful Convictions after a Century of Research.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 100.3(2010): 825-868. Print.

Innocence Project. Causes of Wrongful Conviction, 2011. Web.

Norris, Robert. “Than That One Innocent Sufferer: Evaluating State Safeguards against Wrongful Convictions.” Albany Law Review 74.3(2011): 1301-1364. Print.

Radley, Balko. Wrongful Convictions, 2011. Web.

Wellford, Charles. “Two Goals of Criminal Justice.” Crime and Justice 13.11(1997): 57-61. Print.

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