In any system of justice, there is an inherent risk that innocent people may be wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. The first documented wrongful conviction in the United States occurred in 1812, and researchers have identified hundreds of wrongful convictions in rape and murder cases since. It was not until recent years, however, that the problem of wrongful convictions entered the public’s consciousness in a meaningful way.
The advent of DNA evidence has established without any doubt that our criminal justice system makes mistakes, causing an innocent person to be convicted and imprisoned while the true perpetrator remains free.
The hundreds of DNA exonerations (325 so far) that have occurred since 1989 have revealed the common problems that lead to wrongful convictions:
(click on each link to learn more about some of the causes behind wrongful convictions)
- Eyewitnesses (even crime victims) often get it wrong.
- Innocent people will confess to things they did not do.
- People with something to gain will lie at trial.
- Many forensic disciplines are deeply flawed.
- Police and prosecutors will cut corners to win a conviction.
- Defense attorneys do not always fight for their clients.
While DNA evidence is the most compelling way of proving innocence, the vast majority of criminal cases do not involve DNA-testable material. As of now, 1,230 non-DNA exonerations have occurred since 1989. DNA exonerees are, in a sense, the “fortunate” ones who were accused of crimes in which the actual perpetrator left biological evidence at the scene. The vast majority of crimes do not involve biological evidence, but they pose the same risk of wrongful convictions. In such cases, the wrongly convicted person may never find a way of proving his or her innocence.