Unfortunately, wrongful convictions are not isolated events. Since 1989, more than 250 people have been exonerated through DNA testing alone. There is no way of telling how many more innocent may be currently sitting in jail cells across the country.
Thanks to growing attention on the problem, funding and resources are now being devoted into efforts not only to overturn wrongful convictions, but also to determine how they happen in the first place. A new study conducted by the Washington Institute for Public and International Affairs Research at American University recently revealed 10 factors common in wrongful convictions.
The study, funded by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, examined 460 flawed convictions and ”near miss” cases (defined as those resulting in acquittals or dismissals of innocent defendants) from 1980-2012.
“[T]he only way to establish what causes an erroneous conviction is to understand which factors are exclusive to erroneous convictions as against other sets of cases,” the study found. “Missing so far in the literature is a study that asks how the criminal justice system identifies innocent defendants in order to prevent erroneous convictions.”
As detailed in the study, the researchers were able to use the information to identify several factors that can be used to accurately predict the risk of a wrongful conviction. They include:
- The age of the defendant,
- The criminal history of the defendant
- The punitiveness of the state, i.e. whether there is a death penalty and how frequently it is used,
- Brady violations, i.e. wrongful withholding of evidence by the prosecution,
- Forensic error,
- A weak defense case,
- A weak prosecution case,
- A family defense witness,
- An inadvertent misidentification, and
- Lying by a non-eyewitness
Interestingly, other causes frequently cited as contributing to erroneous convictions, including false confessions, criminal justice official error, and race effects, appear in statistically similar rates in both sets of cases. As the researchers explain, this suggests that those factors likely increase the chance that an innocent suspect will be indicted but not the likelihood that the indictment will result in a conviction.