Study reveals factors associated with wrongful convictions

A study found that factors such as witness misidentification, wrongly interpreted evidence and prosecutorial misconduct lead to wrongful convictions.

It is difficult to determine the number of wrongful convictions that happen in Philadelphia and across the country. However, The Innocence Project points out that the United States has seen 337 DNA exonerations for people who have been convicted of a crime.

Even just one wrongful conviction is problematic and can demonstrate errors within the criminal justice system. A recent study from the National Institute of Justice found a number of factors associated with the phenomenon, giving clues as to where improvements can be made.

The research

In order to determine commonalities among wrongful convictions, researchers from the National Institute of Justice looked at 460 violent felonies that took place between 1980 and 2012. Of those cases, 260 involved people who were exonerated following a conviction. The other 200 involved someone whose charges were dismissed prior to trial or the person was acquitted of the crime.

The findings

When comparing the cases that resulted in a wrongful conviction, researchers found 10 factors that played a role. A weak prosecution and a weak defense were linked to a judge or jury finding an innocent person guilty. Other factors include the following:

  • A non-eyewitness telling a lie
  • Forensic evidence that has been misinterpreted
  • Witness misidentification
  • The prosecution withheld evidence

The study also reported that false confessions are linked to wrongful convictions. These can occur for a number of reasons, including mistakes made during law enforcement interrogation.

Pushing for reform

The authors of the study make several recommendations for how wrongful convictions can be prevented. For example, because eyewitness misidentification is a substantial problem, researchers recommend that police lineups be improved through using a description of the suspect and not the suspect's actual appearance.

Additionally, any interrogations should be videotaped. Currently, Pennsylvania does not require the taping of such interviews. However, last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the city's police department mandated the videotaping of all interrogations of people charged with a major crime.

Among other proposed reforms is that DNA testing and other forensic investigations take place early in order to rule out suspects. The sheer volume of post-conviction DNA exonerations that take place illustrates how taking these steps early could prevent innocent people from going to jail.

Major crimes carry with them major consequences. Someone in Philadelphia facing criminal charges should be aware of how important it is to build a strong defense. An attorney can help someone charged with a crime to develop a legal strategy that addresses the concerning factors found in this study.