Amanda's View: International Wrongful Conviction Day

By Amanda Knox

International Wrongful Conviction Day celebrates its third anniversary on Tuesday, October 4th. In honor of that, here’s a layman’s crash course in the causes of wrongful conviction, and a brief introduction to the Innocence Movement.

The Causes
Wrongful convictions are not some weird anomaly. Studies estimate that between 2.3 and 5% of people currently incarcerated are actually innocent. The causes of wrongful conviction are well-documented and stem from systemic problems. They are:

1) Inadequate defense

It would be nice if the simple fact of your innocence were enough to protect you from having to face criminal charges. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Time and again, innocent people are forced to stand trial, and their futures depend not so much on the fact of their innocence as on how well their lawyers make a case for their innocence. When an overworked or incompetent lawyer fails to make the case, an innocent person will be wrongfully convicted.

2) Invalid forensic evidence

In the last thirty years, extensive scientific research has enhanced our ability to accurately and reliably analyze biological evidence. As a result, DNA testing has become the most effective means of identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent. Still, there are innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted based on forensic techniques that have proved unreliable—bite mark and shoe print comparisons, for example—or because of the results of valid forensic techniques that have been conducted improperly, misrepresented, or fabricated entirely.

3) Government misconduct

Even the most well-intentioned investigators and prosecutors can cave under social pressure and be influenced by their biases, prejudices, and overzealousness. They can make terrible mistakes, particularly when they develop tunnel vision. They focus their attention on the wrong person, blind themselves to other avenues of inquiry, and overlook, undervalue, or suppress exonerating evidence. Still others are simply corrupt, caring more about securing convictions than ensuring justice.

4) Incentivized informants

Incredibly, studies have shown that in 15% of wrongful conviction cases, prosecutors incentivized informants to testify, and those testimonies were crucial towards convicting the innocent person.

5) False admissions

As difficult as it may be to imagine how an innocent person could be induced to falsely confess or falsely incriminate themselves, it happens more than 25% of the time. The fact is, studies have shown that currently implemented interrogation techniques are terribly effective at making anyone admit to anything. Young, uneducated, and mentally impaired individuals are particularly vulnerable, but even smart and competent interrogees can find themselves under duress, coerced to believe or say anything. Those false admissions are devastating in the courtroom, often convincing juries of the innocent person’s guilt despite overwhelming objective evidence proving otherwise.

6) Eyewitness misidentification

Eyewitnesses misidentified an innocent person in over 70% of wrongful conviction cases. Whether this is because prosecutors pressured them to make a definitive identification when the witness was not sure, or because of an honest mistake, experience is teaching us that our eyes play tricks on us. Jennifer Thompson, a woman who misidentified her rapist, is one of the most heroic advocates raising awareness of the danger of relying solely on eyewitness testimony to secure convictions.

Who is wrongfully convicted?
Anyone can fall prey to the wrongful conviction. That said, innocent people who are poor and from ethnic minorities have proven to be more vulnerable. They have less access to resources to defend and prove their innocence, and they are more easily dehumanized by authorities and juries represented by the ethnic majority. Despite the fact that black people represent only 13% of the U.S. population, they represent 63% of exonerees.

The Innocence Movement
In response to the growing technological advances and the rising awareness of the systemic issues that contribute to wrongful convictions, many private individuals, organizations, and communities have come together in defense of the wrongfully convicted. Since the first Innocence Project was founded in New York in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, similar projects have been founded in nearly all the states in the U.S., as well as in a few other countries, like Ireland and Argentina. Together, these projects form the Innocence Network, which leads the way in offering legal assistance to the wrongfully convicted, and campaigning for legislative reform of the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system services and represents all of us. It's failures are our failures. In light of that, I encourage everyone to take a moment on Tuesday to read up on the Innocence Movement, which is working to correct the mistakes we've allowed to happen. They could use your help.

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