Guilty Until Proven Innocent: 3 Underlying Reasons for Wrongful Convictions
Fortunately, hundreds of people have been exonerated due to DNA testing, but there are possibly many more who are waiting for an appellate court to hear their case. When you or someone you know needs to be exonerated, some components of your case are more likely than others to contain the information needed to overturn your conviction.
Unreliable Eyewitness Testimony and Identification
Juries place significant weight on eyewitness testimony when deciding a case. Eyewitness testimony and identification has been well-documented to be unreliable, and in some cases, this information is the major glue of a case. The more stressful the event, the less accurate an eyewitness may be. For example, the weapon-focus effect can occur when people encounter an armed criminal. They are more likely to notice and focus on the gun. In some cases, the gun can be described with great detail with little recall of the person holding the gun.
Another component of eyewitness testimony is the concept of cognitive schemas. These are essentially prototypes in your brain that help you consolidate information in a way that is personally meaningful to you. Cognitive schemas can also include biases of what a person believes is associated with good and bad. For example, a person may believe all dogs are bad. If they then witness an incident where a fuzzy, four-legged animal runs up and bites someone on the street, they may recall it was a dog when the animal was actually a goat.
Cognitive schemas can also affect other witness descriptions of a perpetrator. The more threatening the person, the more they are likely to be described as taller and heavier than they actually are, and this can lead to a false identification. In some situations where convictions have been overturned without the help of DNA evidence, a key witness to the crime recanted, even decades later.
False confessions may seem implausible, but they happen. In most cases they are difficult to prove without DNA evidence. There are certain circumstances in which false confessions are more likely to occur, mainly when improper tactics are used by detectives. In some cases, a suspect is interrogated relentlessly and basic provisions, such as food, water, or bathroom breaks, may have been withheld for them to "break" and confess. Juvenile defendants, especially, may be coerced into believing a confession will allow them to go home and be with their family, even in murder cases where the likelihood of being released after a confession is nearly impossible.
Even for lesser crimes, a defendant may be told that a confession may land them a small amount of time of incarceration and that there is no way to prove their innocence, so confessing is the best option. In this case, the inability to prove their innocence may be a blatant lie, or the crime the person is accused of committing may carry a significantly high minimum sentence. Unknowingly, the person may confess, not realizing there is no difference in sentencing between a false confession or conviction. Fortunately, more protections are in place to reduce the incidence of manipulative tactics by detectives. The audio and video recording of interrogations is important for later use in determining the circumstances around a confession. Questioning juvenile suspects with their parent or attorney present is critical for reducing intimidation.
Outdated Forensic Methods
Outdated forensic methods are a common flaw in older cases. Of course, the technology available, mainly blood typing, was the best forensic testing that was available prior to DNA testing, but it had known limitations. In the case or assaults, rapes, and murders, identifying a suspect was contingent upon collecting body-fluid samples. For blood, the sample was identified using the ABO system. Testing was not always performed for the Rh factor, which determines whether the sample is a positive or negative blood type.
For other bodily fluids where blood typing cannot be applied, testing was performed to determine whether the person was a "secretor." This means their blood antigen is secreted in other bodily fluids. The limited forensic-testing capabilities likely lead to many erroneous convictions. Using the blood-typing system, if only one blood type was found on the victim or near the crime scene, one can't necessarily prove who the perpetrator is if there is no suspect blood or the suspect happens to have the same blood type as the victim. The most obvious problem is that if another blood type was found on the victim or on a piece of evidence, this does not point authorities to a single person. Unfortunately, many people have been wrongly convicted based on little more than having lived nearby and had the same blood type.
With more attention on the plight of wrongful convictions, perhaps more people will have their convictions overturned after their release or will be set free from prisons. When you or someone you know has been wrongly convicted, knowing which pieces of information are more unreliable can help you solve the puzzle. For more information or for help with a case, talk to a lawyer in your area.