Crime Spree: Wrong­ful Con­vic­tions in Amer­ica

Trillions - - Contents -

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.

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