Justice for All: Examining Wrongful Convictions Among Women on International Women’s Day

Today is March 8th, which marks the observance of International Women’s Day worldwide. Observed since 1911, the day aims to celebrate the various impacts women have made towards improving society socially, economically, and culturally. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. Although many strides have been made over the past 113 years since the day was first celebrated, there is still much to be done to achieve equality for women–especially in our criminal legal system, including fighting wrongful convictions. 

Women and Their Unique Fight

Women face a truly unique battle when it comes to the problems they face when addressing wrongful convictions. For starters, the crimes they are convicted of traditionally are linked to their roles as caregivers in their communities, such as killing a spouse or abusing a child. Not only do they suffer the trauma and injustice of being wrongfully accused of a crime they did not commit, but that is compounded by their suffering associated with the pain of harm to, or loss of their loved one. 

In many instances, a crime never even occurred. “No crime cases” are cases where a person was convicted of a crime that did not occur, either because an accident or a suicide was mistaken for a crime, or because the convicted person was accused of a fabricated crime that never happened. This is one of the largest differences between wrongful conviction cases involving women versus men. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, about 73% of female exonerees are exonerated for a crime that never occurred, compared to 37% of male exonerees. 

Proving Innocence

In the United States, we all learn and are continually reminded that we have the right to be presumed innocent, and so rather than the accused person having to prove innocence, the government is required to prove guilt at the very high standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But once someone has been wrongfully convicted, and their appeal has failed, the burden seems to switch. Now, when the person is incarcerated and has virtually no access to resources and no right to an attorney at state expense, they are often stuck trying to prove their innocence.  

So you might be asking, how does someone prove they are innocent when a crime never occurred? This is a great question, which also illustrates another problem wrongfully convicted women tend to face. DNA testing, which for decades has been a vehicle to fight wrongful convictions because it helps reveal or exclude the identity of the perpetrator, rarely aids in cases where no crime has occurred and there is no perpetrator. Since 1989, women only account for 2% of exonerations where DNA was present. The majority of those exonerations were men who were convicted of violent crimes such as rape and murder where DNA evidence that shouldn’t otherwise be present is likely to be left behind and could be tested.

As stated earlier, the wrongful convictions that women face are often tied to their roles as caretakers in society. It is no surprise that a quarter of female exonerees were exonerated from crimes with child victims. These exoneration cases often involve allegations of physical or sexual abuse that did not occur (such as cases involving accidents or natural deaths, false allegations by the complainant, and the now largely scientifically debunked “shaken baby syndrome”). Fifteen percent of female exonerations were cases involving child abuse compared to only nine percent of male exonerations. This was the case for new GIP employee Karla Baday, who was freed from prison after 17 years of wrongful incarceration for a crime she did not commit.

Karla’s Story

Before her 2002 wrongful conviction in California, Karla was the primary caregiver for her female partner’s four young children. After their relationship ended, Karla’s ex-partner promised revenge. She falsely accused Karla of a serious crime, reporting to authorities that Karla sexually assaulted the children. As a result of this accusation, a flawed and unreliable medical exam of the children, and Karla’s ineffective trial counsel, she was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Karla contacted the Northern California Innocence Project and after years of working on her case and revealing her innocence, the charges against Karla were overturned and she walked free in 2019. Karla is now working with GIP as a Client Services Advocate helping to provide peer mentorship and social services support for other exoneree rebuilding their lives outside prison.

In February 2024, Karla spoke to 7th graders at the Galloway School about her wrongful conviction and work at GIP.

Join the Fight

On this International Women’s Day, Georgia Innocence Project recognizes and honors the many women adversely impacted by wrongful convictions and imprisonment. This includes formerly wrongfully incarcerated women like Karla, innocent women trapped in prison and still fighting for their freedom, the many fierce female advocates (like GIP’s lawyers) working to right the wrongs, and countless resilient and strong moms, sisters, daughters and partners keeping families afloat while their loved ones suffering behind bars.

Though the population of women in state prisons has skyrocketed in the last few decades (you can learn more here, here, and here), women only account for 9% of all exonerations since 1989. There is much work to do. Join us in our effort on International Women’s Day to honor impacted women and raise awareness about the unique challenges faced by women caught in the criminal legal system. If you know a wrongfully convicted, incarcerated woman in need of help, you can encourage them to write to us and ask for an application. If you want to learn more or join the conversation, comment below or sign up to our mailing list here.

*Unless otherwise stated, statistics mentioned in this blog post comes from the National Registry of Exonerations.

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