Wrongful Conviction 101

What is a wrongful conviction?

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 (also referred to as cases of “actual innocence”, though many of our cases also involve violations of our clients’ constitutional rights. 

How does a wrongful conviction happen?

Many different things can lead to a wrongful conviction, but usually, it is a combination of multiple factors and systems.

Some of the most common factors that contribute to wrongful convictions include eyewitness misidentification, official misconduct, misapplied or overstated forensic science (sometimes referred to as “junk science”), incentivized witnesses, and false confessions. 

Less quantifiable but overlaying many wrongful convictions are human factors and systems such as cognitive bias, racial bias and discrimination, inadequate public defense, and mass incarceration. 

Learn more about the different wrongful conviction factors here.

How many people are wrongfully convicted in the United States?

Because there is no centralized/national database of criminal cases at state/local levels, it's not possible to determine exactly how often wrongful convictions occur as a percentage of overall cases/convictions. The 4% estimate you see on our website is based on a 2014 study of death penalty cases, which found that 4.1% of all death sentences between 1973 and 2004 were imposed on innocent defendants who were later exonerated. We use this information to extrapolate an estimate of overall wrongful convictions, but it is impossible to know if the actual rate of wrongful convictions is higher or lower than death penalty cases.

Other studies have also been done to try to figure out the number of wrongfully convicted in our country, including this study based on self-reported data.