A Terrible Secret: An Introduction to Wrongful Convictions in America

Photo Credit: Mike Castillo

Photo Credit: Mike Castillo

By: Molly Cunningham

The justice system in the United States is revered in many quarters for its admirable qualities. Equality under the law is enshrined within the Constitution. Bias on the basis of gender, race, ethnic group or country of origin is forbidden under federal statutes. A comprehensive system of appeal dominates the justice systems of states. Individual Americans may expect a fair and speedy trial.

This ideal picture of the American justice system conceals a horrific reality. Since the mid-1980s, more than twelve hundred (1,200) individuals have been wrongfully arrested, tried, and convicted for crimes. For these crimes that they did not commit, wrongfully convicted individuals have faced the long terms of imprisonment. A staggering number of wrongful convicted individuals face or have faced the death penalty. These innocent individuals have served thousands of years in prisons across the United States, and sometimes, these innocent men and women have paid with their lives.

The costs extend far beyond those physically imprisoned in state and federal prisons. The cost to American society is estimated in the millions, money drained from federal and state tax dollars. Defense lawyers who champion these men and women bear the scorn and censure of their prosecutorial colleagues. Wrongfully imprisoning individuals allows the true perpetrators to walk amongst the unsuspecting American public. Victims of crimes remain without a sense of closure.

Despite these injustices, the issue of wrongful conviction remains obscure in American political, legal, and social discourse. The victims of these injustices are often poor, are often racial or ethnic minorities, and are often marginalized by this litigious society. The process for overturning wrongful convictions is a complicated legal process, often spanning decades. The difficulties in exonerating innocent individuals present a concrete problem for lawyers, judges, political activists, and the public.

The issue did not garner much interest until the formation of organizations dedicated to combating and correcting in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. The Innocence Project of New York is the oldest and the best-known institution “assisting prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing,” and through other legal means. These projects, often hosted by law schools, serve as a vital network for the wrongfully convicted. These institutions, however, are hampered by a number of obstacles.

There are several factors, which contribute and exacerbate the problem of wrongful convictions in the United States. According to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, the primary causes of wrongful convictions include erroneous eyewitness identification, police misconduct, coerced or false confessions, and the use of prison “snitches”. While other innocence projects may disagree with this assessment, there is a line of agreement from this community. A perfect storm of factors must occur for an individual to be wrongfully convicted, and this perfect storm can always be averted.

In this UCULR blog series, the issues related to exoneration will be chronicled in a series of blog posts. The faces of the exonerated will be shown, and their stories shall be highlighted. The terrible truths of these injustices will be uncovered with the hope that justice will be served to the true culprits and honor will be restored to the wrongfully convicted.

Molly Cunningham is a fourth year Philosophy major in the College.