What is a Wrongful Conviction?

More and more Americans are beginning to understand the pervasive problem of wrongful convictions in our criminal justice system, thanks in part to high profile documentary films that highlight the tragedies of individual high-profile cases.

Indisputable DNA exonerations of wrongfully convicted persons through the work of the Innocence Project has also helped to show the public that wrongful convictions are real, that they happen on a regular basis, and that our courts sentence innocent people to death based on faulty evidence, the use of jailhouse informants, and prosecutorial misconduct.

How often do wrongful convictions happen? Many people will be surprised and shocked to learn that it is not an aberration that happens every so often – people are wrongfully convicted of large and small crimes on a regular basis in American courtrooms.

What is a wrongful conviction? Does a person have to be exonerated by DNA evidence for us to call it a wrongful conviction?

What is a Wrongful Conviction?

A wrongful conviction is when a person is convicted of a crime that they did not commit. It could be a capital murder, or it could be a speeding ticket. But how do you know that a person has been wrongfully convicted?

Because of the difficulty in proving a person’s innocence, DNA evidence has been key in exonerating wrongfully convicted persons. Unfortunately, most casesdo not involve DNA evidence, which suggests that the number of DNA exonerations is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the number of wrongful convictions.

It is likely that there are tens or even hundreds of thousands of wrongful convictions in courtrooms across America every year. The only ones that we can document, however, are the cases where a defendant has been exonerated after their conviction.

Exonerations are rare, because they require conclusive proof, like DNA evidence, that a person is actually innocent.

Wrongful Conviction Statistics – DNA Exonerations

DNA exonerations are possibly the most conclusive evidence of wrongful convictions, although they are rare and limited to cases where 1) DNA evidence was collected, and 2) DNA evidence was preserved after the conviction. Most of the time, this type of evidence will be limited to more serious offenses like sexual assaults and murders.

The first DNA exoneration in the United States happened in 1989. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 365 DNA exonerations since then. 20 out of 365 served time on death row before their innocence was proven.

41 out of the 365 pled guilty to a crime that they did not commit.

160 actual assailants were identified – people who committed additional violent crimes while the wrongfully convicted defendant was incarcerated, including 82 sexual assaults and 35 murders. Sound awful? These relatively low numbers are only the confirmed statistics from the 365 cases where there were DNA exonerations…

Why are people wrongfully convicted? Out of the 365 wrongful convictions identified through DNA exonerations:

  • 69% involved eyewitness misidentification;
  • 44% involved misapplication of forensic science by state experts;
  • 28% involved false confessions; and
  • 17% involved a government informant.

Wrongful Convictions in the Lower Courts

The National Registry of Exonerations keeps a running list of exonerations throughout the country, including non-DNA exonerations and many cases in the lower courts. On their website, they have listed 2472 exonerations that include over 21,725 years of time served behind bars by provably innocent persons.

Capital cases are the most well-documented cases in the criminal courts, often with multiple hearings, trials, appeals, post-conviction relief, and habeas proceedings. Despite this, one in twenty-five persons who are sentenced to death in the United States are later proven to be innocent – 4.1 percent.

Because these are only the numbers for capital defendants who were later proven to be innocent, it does not include the capital defendants who were wrongfully convicted but do not have the benefit of DNA evidence to prove their innocence.

What does that say about the millions of persons convicted in the nation’s lower courts?

Death sentences are uniquely well-documented. We don’t know nearly enough about other kinds of criminal cases to estimate the rate of wrongful convictions for those. The rate could be lower than for capital murders, or it could be higher. Of course, in a country with millions of criminal convictions a year and more than 2 million people behind bars, even 1 percent amounts to tens of thousands of tragic errors.

For example, there were 10.5 million arrests for all offenses in 2017. If 5 million, less than half of those arrests, resulted in convictions, and if the 4.1% statistic of exonerations in capital cases applied to all offenses, 205,000 people would have been wrongfully convicted in 2017.

But 4.1% is almost certainly a low statistic for non-capital cases, considering that most non-capital cases do not involve multiple defense attorneys, investigators, and experts and do not have the same types of rigorous post-conviction review by the courts, attorneys, and other organizations.

In the lower courts, where most defendants plead guilty whether they are guilty or not, where defendants in some states are not given defense attorneys, and where the rules of court often fall by the wayside, the number of wrongful convictions is surely astronomical.

In most of these cases, there will be no exoneration and the wrongfully convicted persons will have to carry the stigma of a false accusation for the rest of their lives.

Can You Undo a Wrongful Conviction?

How do you undo a wrongful conviction when there is no DNA evidence to test?

In most cases, there are multiple post-conviction options to attempt to overturn a wrongful conviction. Or, to overturn a conviction that was obtained wrongfully, regardless of the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

Brady violations, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, and other errors made before and during a defendant’s trial can be corrected on direct appeal or through “collateral attacks” on the conviction like post-conviction relief proceedings or federal habeas review.

Can You Undo a Wrongful Conviction in State Court?

If you were convicted in state court, your post-conviction options may include:

  • A direct appeal to the state court of appeals;
  • A direct appeal from the state court of appeals to the state supreme court;
  • A direct appeal from the state supreme court to the United States Supreme Court;
  • A post-conviction relief (PCR) action (or a habeas action depending on what state you are in) based on ineffective assistance of counsel;
  • An appeal from the state-court PCR or habeas action to the state supreme court;
  • An appeal of the PCR or habeas decision from the state supreme court to the United States Supreme Court, and
  • Federal habeas review of the state courts’ decisions.

Can You Undo a Wrongful Conviction in Federal Court?

If you were wrongfully convicted in federal court, there are similar post-conviction remedies available including:

  • A direct appeal to the circuit court of appeals;
  • A direct appeal from the circuit court of appeals to the US Supreme Court;
  • A federal 2255 motion asking the district court to vacate your conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel;
  • Appeal of the 2255 motion to the circuit court of appeals; and
  • Appeal of the 2255 motion from the circuit court of appeals to the US Supreme Court.

Federal Criminal Appeals Attorney in Columbia, SC

Whether you were wrongfully convicted, or your conviction was obtained unlawfully, I want to help. I have extensive experience in handling state and federal criminal appealsfederal habeas review of state-court convictions, and federal 2255 motions.

For more information, call us at (803) 331-3421 or send us an email to set up a consultation about your case.