Crime Spree: Wrongful Convictions in America
Your chance of being wrongly sent to prison is probably the highest in the once great land of liberty, America. The U.S. has not just the highest rate of imprisonment of any country on Earth (other than tiny Seychelles), it also has one of the highest rates of false convictions.
Somewhere between 2% and 10% of people convicted of crimes in the United States have been wrongly convicted by a system that often functions as a criminal enterprise.
Those estimates vary a bit depending on who did the analysis, but even on the low end, the numbers are bad enough. With the total prison population running at 2.3 million, that calculates out to between 46,000 and 230,000 innocent people serving sentences that have destroyed their lives and those of their families and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
As for what’s behind those false convictions, take just the example of death penalty cases. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the number one cause of false convictions as of May 31, 2017, was official misconduct (at 68.3%). That misconduct often went hand in hand with perjury or false accusation, which also happened in 68.3% of homicide exonerations. Other causes included mistaken witness identification (at 24.3%, nearly one-fourth of all cases), false or misleading forensic evidence (also nearly onefourth of all cases, at 23.2%) and false or fabricated confessions in more than a fifth of the cases finally exonerated (21.8%). Inadequate legal representation at trial – something that happens more often than it should when public defenders are provided – was a factor in more than one-quarter of all cases (26.1%).
John Grisham, the famous author of legal thrillers, knows this area well. In his recent article for the Los Angeles Times, entitled “Eight reasons for America’s shameful number of wrongful convictions” and published on March 11, 2018, he goes over this in more detail. His experience as a former practicing member of the legal profession has certainly helped him understand the situation. And as a board member for Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization dedicated 100% to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, he has even more experience.
In the article, he supports the findings of The National Registry of Exonerations (cited by the Death Penalty Information Center) and provides background on other causes that have contributed to the high rate of mistakes in court. They include bad police work, prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, faulty eyewitness identification, jailhouse snitches, bad lawyering, junk science and even sleeping judges.
Grisham’s article is well worth a read for all citizens concerned about how justice (injustice) really works in the United States.