Wrongful Conviction in the American Judicial Process: History, Scope, and Analysis

By Joshua A. Jones
2012, Vol. 4 No. 08 | pg. 1/3 |


This paper addresses the historical, current, and projected scope of wrongful convictions in the judicial process of the United States. Herein, numerous research studies are reviewed in order to identify the trend  of this problem, determine its origin, and propose solutions. Specifically, the paper addresses the implications of the expanding American custodial system and the decline in homicide clearance rates necessary for the efficacy of the current justice process. It further examines wrongful convictions as a social problem from an interactionist perspective concerning racial and economic inequality and considers the applicability of labeling theory therein. Finally, it identifies the most prominent causes of wrongful conviction from a functionalist view and offers recommendations toward addressing it in the future.

Most Americans harbor the presumption that their criminal justice system is fair and blind. Within that a priori delusion, an assumption is made that no person shall ever be convicted for a crime that he or she did not commit (Huff, 2002; Marquis, 2005). The idea that a free citizen could be unjustly sentenced to prison or executed by the State is diametrically opposed to the concept of judicious treatment expected in the United States. Indeed, audiences sympathize with characters such as John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) of “The Green Mile” and Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) of “The Shawshank Redemption” because the notion of wrongful incarceration is utterly terrifying, though ostensibly quarantined to the realm of fiction (Darabont, 1994; 1999). Indeed, every person living in the United States, citizen or not, is afforded the constitutional rights of due process and a trial by a jury of their peers wherein the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of a particular crime. This instrument is specifically designed to protect the innocent, rather than obtain convictions (Anderson, 2005; Givelber, 2005). Schoolchildren are taught to have faith in the criminal justice system and told that an innocent person has nothing to fear (Cross, 2005). Under such an impartial system, is it not a virtual guarantee that only the wicked shall suffer? Unfortunately, the judicial process has been plagued by eyewitness misidentification, unfounded and improper forensic science, false confessions, substandard lawyering, and governmental misconduct leading to myriad wrongful criminal convictions (Rattner, 1988). Such revelations gnaw at the delicate social fabric of democratic republicanism.

The American criminal justice system is based on the concept that wrongs have causes, that such causes are preventable, and that injurious acts warrant recompense to victims as well as punishment for offenders (Leo & Gould, 2009). If the problem is to be addressed and rectified, it must first be understood; not as it is perceived, but as it is. The relationship between wrongful convictions and legal procedure is not one of simple cause and effect. Rather, this problem represents a dynamic interaction between defendants and observers wherein all parties play an active role. However, the wrongful conviction trend has only been subjectively accepted by the general public to any measurable degree within the past two decades (Huff, 2002).

A History of Wrongful Convictions in the United States

Judge Learned Hand said in 1923 that the American judicial system “has always been haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.” He referred to the notion of wrongful conviction as an “unreal dream” (Halsted, 1992; Huff, Rattner, Sagarin, & MacNamara, 1986). Serious study of this phenomenon began less than a decade after the judge made his innocuous statements. Contrary to his honor’s eloquent rhetoric, time and technology have revealed that an unquantifiable number of wrongfully convicted persons have served prison sentences and even been executed for crimes which were committed by others and even some that never occurred (Huff, 2002). Herein, this paper addresses the prison population explosion of the past 30 years and assesses the decline in homicide clearance rates to ascertain the efficacy of the American judicial process and identify the prevalence of wrongful convictions therein.

It is difficult to articulate the wrongful conviction trend and determine the growth or recession of the problem. This is due to the unavoidable fact that a wrongful conviction can only be unequivocally known to have taken place if the offender has been subsequently exonerated by the same system which was responsible for the initial error. Indeed, an appellate verdict of “not guilty” does not inherently translate to innocence (Huff, 2002). Research into wrongful convictions was virtually nonexistent until Professor Edward Borchard of Yale University published his book Convicting the Innocent in 1932, which documented 65 such cases, addressed the legal causes of miscarriage, and offered suggestions for reform. In subsequent decades, numerous researchers conducted case studies and published findings which affirmed that wrongful conviction represented a systematic problem within the American judicial process.

Nonetheless, legislators, law enforcement professionals, and the general public remained unconvinced and blissfully ignorant. The contemporary innocence revolution began with an article published by Bedau and Radelet in 1987. Therein, 350 wrongful convictions, 23 of which had led to executions, were identified and exposed (Leo & Gould, 2009). The public was immediately aroused and haunted by the notion that the “unreal dream” of the innocent man convicted was a harsh subjective reality. These revelations ushered in the modern history of miscarriages of justice. The introduction of DNA testing to the courtroom has certainly elevated the issue into public discourse. Gary Dotson became the first prisoner to be exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence in 1989. This landmark case initiated the movement which has been responsible for overturning more than 300 convictions to date. Once assumed to be a preposterous notion, 94 percent of recent poll respondents believed that innocent defendants are sometimes executed via the American judicial process (Gould & Leo, 2010; Leo, 2005). Unfortunately, researchers will likely never know exactly how many innocent defendants have lost their lives, or the better part of them, due to miscarriages of justice (Zalman, Larson, & Smith, 2012).

In 2000, then-Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois and expressed his outrage toward a flawed system wherein more death row inmates had been exonerated than executed by the State (Leo, 2005). Shortly thereafter, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy introduced the Innocence Protection Act and stated that miscarriages of justice come at a high social cost. Public confidence in the judicial system is undermined, innocent people suffer, and public safety is compromised because for every person wrongfully convicted there is a real criminal who may still be roaming the streets (Blackerby, 2003; Zalman, 2006). Contemporary estimates contend that perhaps as many as 7,500 persons arrested for index crimes are wrongfully convicted annually in the United States, though there are no extant reliable statistics on the precise incidence of miscarriages of justice (Huff, 2002; Zalman, Larson, & Smith, 2012).

Currently, the factual rate of wrongful conviction is believed to be as high as 5 percent in rape-murder cases (Gould & Leo, 2010; Risinger, 2007). Nonetheless, many researchers contend that recent case studies have only revealed the tip of the proverbial iceberg (Huff, 2002). Scholars can hardly trend the history and state of these miscarriages as modern developments in DNA technology have been largely responsible for their identification through post-conviction exonerations. Though, the issue is certainly perceived as worsening since innocent people have recently been exonerated in droves (Krieger, 2011). A recent survey study conducted by Zalman, Larson, and Smith (2012) revealed that the vast majority of citizens believed that wrongful convictions occur at least occasionally (55%) or frequently (20%).

The United States houses the largest national prison population in the world with 7.1 million offenders under some form of correctional supervision. This behemoth of a custodial system arrived at this nearly incomprehensible figure following a four-fold prison population explosion which began in the 1980s; the same decade which saw the birth of the modern innocence revolution (Schmalleger & Smykla, 2009, p. 5). Much of this growth is attributable to zealous enforcement of “War on Drugs” policies which have simultaneously criminalized non-violent offenses and increased the likelihood of wrongful conviction (Halsted, 1992). Notably, the national clearance rate for murder was over 90 percent in 1960. In subsequent decades, the rate of homicides cleared by arrest or exceptional means gradually declined to just over 60 percent by 2010.

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