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Wrongful Legal Convictions

Advances in the use of DNA tests by judicial system have resulted in a number of inmates exonerated from their conviction.  These recent events in justice system, from as late as 1989, when the first convict exoneration from charges was done, point to perennial flaws of legal systems in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The fundamental value of determination in wrongful convictions points to the fact that it is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty one walk free. Unfortunately, it has never been so because a conviction of an innocent man actually means that the guilty one walked away free. This realization has arguably helped to discount long held legal myth by prosecutors that the legal system almost never convicts an innocent man. The intrigues of wrongful conviction becomes more painful, when discovered that the prosecutor was aware of existing flaws in the evidence and determinately failed to inform the defendant. This paper explores wrongful convictions with a view of suggesting the way forward.

The role of any criminal judicial system is to uphold justice in a society. This is done through effective and fair trials to ensure the offender and the offended get what is due to them. According to Garrett  (2011), effectiveness of a judicial system is measured by the ability to carry out balanced and factual investigation, detect a crime, precisely identify the offender, and expeditiously give appropriate sanctions to the offenders. Fairness, on the other hand, vests in thoroughness and efforts made in redressing the inequity between the accused and the government in terms of resource right from the investigatory to appellate stages. This is done through providing valid evidences and flawless legal representation at all stages. However, recent finding indicates the contrary, especially with numerous cases of wrongful conviction coming to public each year. It is estimated that close to 6000 people are wrongly convicted in the United States every year (Leo, 2005).

Garrett (2011) argues that the psychological trauma caused to a person who is wrongfully convicted by a flawed judicial system can be haunting. Not because the person cannot prove his/her innocence but because he/she knows well beyond reasonable doubt that someone has not done his/her work well. Similarly, as the guilty man walks about freely, he also knows the flawlessness of the judicial system and this point to the tragic end that people suspected of crime continue to face. As most wrongful convictions rely on evidences of eyewitness and forensic studies, it is vital that these evidences are reviewed in order to validate their accuracy.

Garrett  (2011) further points out that wrongful conviction is not just a social immorality on the part of prosecutors but also an act of impunity that is worth conviction in a court of law. Nevertheless, the convicted persons lack mechanisms to redress their cases and mostly end up serving the jail term. Some have even gone up to the point of execution only to be discovered later that an innocent man was executed. According to Tavris & Aronson (2008), the fundamental value of determination in a wrongful conviction spells the insurmountable knowledge of convicting a wrong person, while leaving the guilty one free. Additionally, it is an evidence of the mythical point that judicial systems never convict a wrong person.

Huff (2004) observes that the consequences of wrongful conviction are taunting given that governments are required to compensate persons who prove that they were innocent of the crime. This is double expense on the side of public finance since prosecutors, who handled the case, were paid for a shoddy job. In addition, the wrongly convicted person continues to use public funds while in prison. Such resources could be directed to other important projects in the country. Again, the country is deprived of work force, as innocent potential citizens are being convicted. As such, it is important that a review of judicial process be done in order to reduce rampant cases of wrongful conviction as well as restore sanity on the part of justice.

Genesis of Wrongful Legal Convictions

According to Garrett & Neufeld (2009), the first incidence of wrongful conviction was discovered in 1989 after a DNA analysis involving a rape case, in which Gary Dotson was convicted in 1979 for 50 years for raping his girlfriend. The evidence of wrongful conviction started manifesting after the Governor of Illinois denied Dotson pardon upon confession from the rape victim that she had fabricated accusations against Dotson to conceal her consensual intercourse with her boyfriend.  Edward Blake, the pioneer of forensic science, conducted a forensic test that discounted Dotson’s involvement in the rape case but of the victim’s boyfriend. Dotson was exonerated heralding a historical instance, in which the legality of prosecution evidences was put on question.

Garrett & Neufeld (2009) observe that since then, hundreds of cases have been brought to court and exonerated and, thus, exposing the flawed nature of a judicial system that was once believed to be free from error. The precedence has been the opening of debates for meaningful reforms in areas like faulty forensic evidences, police prosecution misconduct, mistaken eye witness identification, false confessions, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel. More troubling is the realization that many lawyers lack information on what might be the causes of wrongful conviction on the part of the prosecutors, the implications of wrongful convictions on the reliability of evidences presented in courts, and the recommended reforms that can reduce cases of wrongful conviction. Garrett & Neufeld (2009) argue that this might actually been the cause of wrongful conviction as lawyers became more ignorant on issues pertaining to their work.

However, Gould & Leo (2010) point out to several issues that presumably inform wrong conviction, some of which are on the part of the convicts themselves.  For instance, the authors identify plea bargaining, outright perjury, biased editing of evidences, faulty forensic tests, false confession, and false identification of the criminal as the causes of wrongful conviction. A far-reaching cause has been the conspiracy between the court of appeal judges and the prosecutor to execute conviction of an innocent person.  Still most of the causes of wrongful conviction originate with a flaw in the prosecution process.

Similarly, Bach (2010) argues that community pressure to execute a conviction due to biasness on the part of the community is also a major contributing factor. This emanates from the belief by a larger group that the accused is guilty of the offense. However,Leo (2005) indicates that this is not different from the mob justice meted on the streets and, in essence, makes a mockery of a judicial system. To this end, prosecutors need to be more careful in cases, where the community is largely concerned and its opinion on the outcome of the case is explicitly spelt out. Leo (2005) further argues that community pressure cannot justify the fault in the judicial system, as the cause of wrongful convictions is done in courtrooms.

Furthermore, the judicial system itself renders it almost impossible for the accused to present new evidences at the appellate stage, citing a complex and biased system. Acker (2010) noted that it is common for prosecutors, for fear of reprisal and stigmatization, to easily squash a discovery of new evidence after conviction. More frustrating is when it becomes evident that the prosecutors were aware of this evidence before conviction. He further observes that every instance of determined wrongful conviction indicates a different amalgamation of downfalls in the criminal justice system that prevents it from effective and fair functioning.

Faulty and False Evidences in Prosecution

According to Garrett & Neufeld (2009), the most taunting task in exoneration cases has been the resistance on the part of prosecution and the government should take responsibility for wrongful convictions. They argue that the most significant single characteristic among wrongful conviction cases is the continual rejection by politicians and prosecutors of the existence of a problem and their indecisiveness, when evidence of a possible wrongful conviction is revealed.

Away from the conspiracies between appeal justices and the prosecutors and plea-bargaining as isolated causes, much of wrongful convictions are caused through the presentation of false evidences either by the eyewitness or by prosecutors. Garrett & Neufeld (2009) note that most of the cases of exoneration are facilitated by revelations of false or faulty evidences that were presented in court. It is, therefore, important to re-evaluate forensic evidence, especially now that cases of faulty evidences being used in wrongful conviction prior to the 1989 case are many. Similarly, human error and misinterpretation of information by both the prosecutors and judges need to be studied in an attempt of finding a lasting solution to wrongful convictions.

Garrett & Neufeld (2009) note that over 90% of wrongful convictions are the result of faulty evidences, presented in court by the eyewitness or by forensic labs technicians. They argue that this huge number of percentage supports the need of creating and enforcing national standards for interpreting data in various forensic disciplines. Moreover, they see forensic evidence as merely opening the assortment of problems by allowing the public to question the effectiveness and fairness of criminal judicial system. Leo (2005) argues that a little bit more scrutiny should be clear that wrongful convictions are the results of a combination of causes, which are not exclusive of each other, much less the false evidences alone.

An interesting part in wrongful conviction resulting from false evidence has been the case of coercion or even perjury, where an accused person agrees to give false testimony in order to stand in for the real criminal. This form of trickery obviously will lead to a wrongful conviction of an individual irrespective of his/her knowledge of the truth. However, Leo (2005) notes that the morality of this scenario again rests with the criminal judicial system to investigate and identify the real offender. Notably, it is well that someone was convicted for a crime that occurred; nevertheless, the effectiveness of the judicial system is casted in doubt since it fails to net the real offender but instead settles on someone who purports to be the one. Morality issues then arise as to the actual objective of a criminal judicial system. That is, whether to punish somebody or anybody for a crime that was committed or to find the actual offender.

Attorney-Client Confidentiality and Wrongful Conviction

According to Strutin (2010), the current efforts by concerned groups like the Innocence Group to rectify the issue of wrongful conviction touches on some fundamental rules that have guided conduct and behavior of judicial officers for some time now.  Continual attempt to correct the mistakes of wrongful conviction is likely to create an ethical versus moral rift between civil and criminal attorneys.  This is because of the requirements for lawyers to retain confidentiality, even in extreme cases, where the innocent person is facing capital punishment. Garrett  (2011) concurs with Strutin (2010), when he notes that some wrongful convictions have happened as a result of existing laws binding lawyers to retain confidentiality, while representing their clients in a court of law.

This in a way contributes to wrongful convictions because in as much as the lawyer may be aware of the truth, he cannot reveal it to the judge since he is bound by law to remain confidential. Strutin (2010) further notes that this is arguably a contradiction of the law itself that has its foundations on truth but the truth only. However, much is being done in many states to allow lawyers to reveal the truth in cases, where the accused is facing a wrongful conviction.

Justice for Wrongfully Convicted Persons

According to Huff (2004), most of the people who prove that they were wrongfully convicted continue to suffer injustice after incarceration. This is in spite of the fact that records have shown an average of 12 years spent behind bars for those who are lucky to prove their innocence. By any standards, this long time warrants recognition from the people who inflicted suffering to an innocent person. It is the responsibility of the government to restore faith in its judicial system by contributing to the healing of the ex convicted and the public faith that despite its fault system it is willing to take ownership of the errors that occurred during the prosecution process.

However, Strutin (2010) argues that in most cases, the nightmare for exonerees in a wrongful conviction does not end upon their release. Instead, they enter into a world that is full of complex legal and political procedures that do not guarantee justice.  Having been deprived for many years of family and friends, time, and the ability to establish one’s professionalism, victims of wrongful conviction deserve a public apology from the government. Moreover, Leo (2005) indicates that justice demands that after such a long time, wasted in prison wrongly, the government should compensate the victim. However, this has never been the case as many governments lack mechanisms to compensate for such cases partly because there are no laws, addressing such particular cases.

Exonerees who prove their innocence continue to face hurdles in their quest for justice. Garrett & Neufeld (2009) noted that states also have the responsibility of clearing the criminal records of such people. This has rarely been done despite the eventualities. Similarly, the government has the responsibility of providing housing, transportation, healthcare services, and insurance to people who are wrongfully convicted. This is in pursuant to a healing process that the ex convict is expected to undergo and also a show of remorsefulness on the part of the government judicial system. However, Leo (2005) notes that this has rarely been the case as compensation become shrouded in a political environmental that requires legislation to be effective.

The Way Forward for Exonerees

Being exonerated after a long time in prison is a joyous moments. However, this joy ends at the gates of the prison since the criminal records of the exonerees are not immediately expunged from the national records of crime. Similarly, exonerees continue to face rejection and resentment in the societies, in which they live. This is because the government, in addition to taking a long time to clear their criminal records, is not ready to owner up responsibility for the wrongful conviction of these people.

According to Garrett & Neufeld (2009), compensation and public apology to the exonerated can be a good way of participating in the healing process. Similarly, it will guarantee public faith in the innocence of the exonerated person. Most of the people who are exonerated lack jobs and, therefore, cannot have access to better social services like insurance, health care, and education. Consequently, it becomes difficult for them to support themselves. The consequence of this can be the urge of committing of a crime again, which may land them back into a flawed judicial system.

The onus is on the government to provide mechanisms in terms of legal structures that will enable exonerees to integrate into the society and participate in the normal activities without stigmatization or inconveniences. Legal structures require reformation in the existing laws to allow a process of incorporating those exonerated back into the society. Additionally, this process should be done expeditiously to avoid a delay of justice to exonerees.

Moreover, Garrett & Neufeld (2009) observe that the public need to be educated on their rights in cases of a wrongful conviction. Public education will help in reducing stigmatization of exonerees besides informing people on the rights to seek legal redress in cases, where some family feel that their member was wrongfully convicted to a crime they did not commit.

As has already been demonstrated by various human rights bodies like the Amnesty International, it is expected that various governments, holding prisoners who have wrongful conviction claims, will have the willingness to reform their judicial system. Garrett & Neufeld (2009) cite the Innocence Project group as among the groups that have come up with various projects to sensitize the public about wrongful conviction and get the involvement of lawyers in this new subject of legal dimensions. In addition, the exonerees themselves need education and information on how to deal with the realities of a flawed system and a biased society, where they are expected to live.


In its exploration of wrongful legal conviction, this paper has found out that numerous cases of wrongful conviction are the result of several factors from the part of the prosecution team, the judge, the offender, and the community. The paper has also considered the role of the government and the entire criminal judicial system in the reformation of the judicial sector to avert cases of wrongful conviction. The write up has recommended the use of reliable evidence in the prosecution of a criminal offense such as use of well documented and recorded evidences, while meting out a sanction. Similarly, the paper also proposes a reduction in the dependence on human memory as evidences for prosecution in a court of law. Finally, the paper recommends that the government should take up the responsibility of compensating those who were exonerated and were wrongfully convicted. This should be done without introducing many obstacles towards compensation as is presently the case in many governments.

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