Wrongful Conviction Factors
A wrongful conviction is the conviction of an innocent person for a crime that they did not commit. It can also be a conviction secured in violation of a person’s constitutional rights. Georgia Innocence Project focuses on wrongful convictions involving the conviction of an innocent person, though many of our cases also involve violations of constitutional rights.
There are usually several different causes of a wrongful conviction. Decades of research into DNA exoneration cases have shown that some contributing causes, known as factors, tend to appear again and again across cases. These wrongful conviction factors demonstrate the large role that human error plays in the wrongful conviction process and illuminate the pressing need for some specific policy reforms.
Below we explain the top wrongful conviction factors in DNA exoneration cases.
Eyewitness Misidentification: A factor in 56% of cases
Definition: At least one witness mistakenly identified the exoneree as a person the witness saw commit the crime. There are DNA exoneration cases where 3, 4, or more people have identified the wrong person. Human memory is malleable and easily influenced. Cross-racial identifications are especially prone to error.
Reforms: Implicit bias training. Strengthen eyewitness ID laws and rules and jury instructions, review scientific bases of identification cases, and allow eyewitness identification experts in post-conviction hearings.
Official Misconduct: A factor in 55% of cases
Definition: Police, prosecutors, or other government officials significantly abused their authority or the judicial process in a manner that contributed to the exoneree’s conviction. Whether the result of tunnel vision and confirmation bias or deliberate misconduct, it often manifests in suppression or alteration of exculpatory evidence and witness or evidence tampering.
Reforms: More accountability. Stronger ethical rules and oversight for prosecutors, Brady letters for police and regular government witnesses, and reduced qualified immunity protections.
Invalid Forensic Evidence: A factor in 44% of cases
Definition: Exoneree’s conviction was based at least in part on forensic information that was (1) caused by errors in forensic testing, (2) based on unreliable or unproven methods, (3) expressed with exaggerated and misleading confidence, or (4) fraudulent. Several types of forensic evidence are now considered junk or in need of significantly increased accuracy, reliability, and validity, such as bitemark analysis, tire tread or shoe print comparisons, fiber comparison, bloodstain pattern analysis, tool-mark comparisons, hair microscopy, and more.
Reforms: Make the admissibility of expert testimony in Georgia as strict in criminal trials as it is in civil trials. Create avenues for people convicted based on invalid and overstated forensic evidence to get back into court.
Perjury/False Accusation: A factor in 50% of cases
Definition: A person other than the exoneree makes a false statement under oath that incriminates the exoneree in the crime for which they were exonerated, or makes a similar unsworn statement that would have been perjury if made under oath.
Reform: Robust rules to ensure that witness testimony is corroborated; resources and support for police to investigate the veracity of witnesses; stronger discovery rules to ensure all is known about witness incentives and credibility.
False Confession: A factor in 24% of cases
Definition: A confession is a statement made specifically to law enforcement at any point during the proceedings which law enforcement then interprets or presents as an admission of participation in or presence at the crime. A guilty plea is not a confession.
Reforms: Record interrogations throughout the entire interrogation process, and use less coercive, more reliable interrogation techniques.
Definition: A witness seeking to gain some sort of benefit or reward in exchange for their information, such as a witness seeking financial compensation or a reduction of their own criminal charges by reporting that the exoneree admitted guilt.
Reforms: Prosecutor tracking and disclosure of jailhouse informant testimony and benefits, strict disclosure requirements about reward-seeking-witnesses, jury instructions to scrutinize incentivized testimony.
Definition: The exoneree’s lawyer at trial provided obviously and grossly inadequate representation. This factor can be very difficult to quantify. Reforms: Significantly increased funding for indigent defense and defense experts and investigators, reduced public defender caseloads, pay parity with prosecutors.
Less quantifiable, but just as important, are the human factors and systems that overlay many wrongful convictions such as cognitive bias, racial bias and discrimination, inadequate public defense, and mass incarceration.
Data Source: National Registry of Exonerations DNA cases, September 2021