How do wrongful convictions happen?

The Problem

No human being is perfect. Therefore no system designed by humans can be perfect. And perhaps no system has more human parts than the criminal justice system. We might think that a criminal case is about a search for truth. In reality, it is not about truth. It is about evidence. And more specifically, it is only about the evidence that is presented in the courtroom. Sometimes incorrect or inaccurate evidence pointing to guilt is presented at trial. And sometimes correct and accurate evidence pointing to innocence is not known at the time of the trial and therefore not presented at trial. In the end, mistakes happen.

How do wrongful convictions happen?

Research conducted by wrongful convictions scholar Jon Gould of American University identified several predictors that help explain why an innocent defendant, once indicted, ends up erroneously convicted rather than released. These include:

  • A younger defendant
  • A criminal history
  • A weak prosecution case
  • Prosecution withheld evidence
  • Lying by a non-eyewitness
  • Unintentional witness misidentification
  • Misinterpreting forensic evidence at trial
  • A weak defense
  • Defendant offered a family witness
  • A "punitive" state culture

A qualitative review of the cases in Gould’s research reveals how the statistically significant predictors are connected and exacerbated by tunnel vision, which prevents the system from self-correcting once an error is made. In fact, tunnel vision provides a useful framework for understanding the larger system-wide failure that separates erroneous convictions from near misses.

How many people are wrongfully convicted?

"If you look for them, you will find them."
- Keith Findley, Director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project
Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School

How many people are wrongfully convicted? There is no way to know exactly. But we can make some pretty reasonable guesses.

For starters, think of your local electrical utility. Their job is to supply electricity to your home 24/7/365. Or about 8,760 hours per year. Assume an “uptime” of 99.9%. That would mean the power would be out around 9 hours per year. Or an “error rate” of 1 in 1,000 (.001).

With wrongful convictions, we start not with hours per year but with felony (we will set aside misdemeanors) convictions per year. In Texas, that’s over 100,000.

There is no way to know the exact wrongful conviction error rate. But several studies have attempted to define a wrongful conviction error rate. The lower estimates from these studies is in the 2%-5% range. In Texas, that could mean hundreds of wrongful convictions each year.

The takeaway here is that even an otherwise “reliable” system can produce a large number of undesired outcomes. In this case, the criminal justice system doesn’t necessarily have to be “broken” to inflict pain and suffering on an intolerable number of innocent victims.

How does Innocence Texas help?

Imagine this. You have been arrested, tried and convicted for a crime you did not commit. If you could not afford a lawyer (the vast majority of criminal defendants are poor) a lawyer was provided for you. But despite your innocence, you were convicted. And now you’re in prison, behind bars, further away from freedom than ever.

And guess what? Now that you have been convicted and tossed in prison (maybe for the rest of your natural born life), you no longer have a right to an attorney. Just when you need one the most.

So you’re in prison. You know you’re innocent. But you can’t prove it from a prison cell. And you don’t have a lawyer. And you can’t afford to pay for a lawyer. That’s about as grim as it gets.

That’s where Innocence Texas comes in.

Innocence Texas does the two things you most desperately need. We investigate your case, top to bottom, inside and out and we get your case back into court. We find the facts that prove your innocence. And we take those facts and navigate the complex legal process that leads to your freedom.

If we’re successful (as we have been 15 times so far), the judge in the Texas criminal district court where your case originated will vacate (overturn) your conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will review and agree with the district court ruling. Finally, the local district attorney will drop all charges. And you will be free to get on with your life.