Causes of Wrongful Convictions

2160 words (9 pages) Essay in Criminal Law

05/08/19 Criminal Law Reference this

Last modified: 05/08/19 Author: Law student

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A fair legal process is an emblem of human civilization; states aspire to be true to the ideals of the law. Procedural rights have spread around the world and are considered to be fundamental human rights, even by the United Nations. States around the world have experienced innocence movements regarding wrongful convictions. The movements have occurred at different times as a response to different social and political circumstances. Each has taken different forms and action that have generated different responses. Wrongful convictions have been at the forefront of the movement, with advancing technology being able to prove innocence or guilt. The causes of wrongful convictions have been attached to miscarriages of justice that occur due to procedural errors and system actors. (Gross, 2008) Analysis of wrongful convictions tends to be focused on false convictions. However, there is high significance in procedurally flawed convictions that pose the challenges to legal systems that aim in keeping their stature as a reliable system of law. William Blackstone’s quote, “better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffers,” reflects the social consciousness of wrongful convictions through history. Wrongful convictions violate the basic right of liberty. That is why its existence generates numerous concerns: adversarial system and its limits, due process’ fallibility, violation of human rights, and the legitimacy of any current criminal justice system.

To clarify the issue presented, there is a need to define some terms. First, convictions are the verdict of a court that identifies an individual as a criminal in accordance to the law of the nation. Keep in mind, convictions are only legitimate when the state has met due process requirements by providing for all elements of a trial and proving the elements in a trial. Wrongful convictions, for the purpose of this paper, is when an individual who has been arrested, convicted, and punished for a crime he or she did not commit. To define wrongful conviction in an abstract way is one thing but devising a methodology for identifying a factually innocent person is confounding. Wrongful convictions are invisible when they occur, otherwise, indictments would be challenged, and juries would acquit. Miscarriage can be defined as the failed attempt to reach a goal. Thus, a miscarriage of justice is considered to be the failure of attaining justice.

The following data has been compiled by state, federal, and juvenile courts and law enforcement nationwide. The data presents persons who have committed a crime and have been prosecuted for offenses.

United States

Wrongful convictions in the United States are not unheard of and have received a lot of attention from the media. The majority of these cases have resulted in unwarranted punishment, that for some has lasted many years.

Court System and Data

The United States court system beings with District Courts that that resolve disputes through the determination of facts and applying law to find the truth. These include a district judge who tries the case, while a jury determines if innocent or guilty. (United States Courts, 2018) Each state has a district court to deal with disputes. Further is the Court of Appeals that sits below the Supreme Court, with 94 districts. (United States Courts, 2018) They handle appeals to determine if the law was applied correctly in a trial court. These courts consist of three judges, but no jury. Lastly, there is the Supreme Court that is the highest court in the United States.  The Supreme Court does not only interpret the Constitution, but it has the power to establish lower courts and their system. Keep in mind that U.S. federal courts treat those under 18 years of age and older as adults. State courts also consider a defendant an adult once they reach the age of 18; there are some exceptions with states considering 16 or 17 the beginning of adulthood. (United States Courts, 2018)

The United States has a high population and high crime rates. 1.2 million violent crimes and 7.7 million property crimes reported in 2017. (FBI, 2018) Violent crimes include, aggravated assault, robbery, rape, and murder. Property crime includes larceny theft, burglary, and motor vehicle theft. However, in 2017 U.S. District Courts had 367,937 cases. (Courts, 2017) With that in mind, there are approximately 2.3 million people in confined in U.S. correctional facilities. (Prison policy, 2018) As mentioned, calculating the amount of wrongful convictions is not exactly possible. However, there have been studies that have concluded that wrongful convictions occur at a rate of 11.6 percent. (Walsh, Hussemann, Flynn, Yahner, & Golian, 2017) The study was published by the U.S. Department of Justice that shows the existence of wrongful convictions and efforts to deal with the issue.

Methods

Previous research has identified numerous factors that contribute to wrongful convictions in the United States: eyewitness misidentification, police behavior, prosecutors and defense, and other factors. (University of Michigan, n.d.) Eyewitness misidentification occurs when a witness has mistakenly identified the accused as the actual perpetrator of a specified crime. These are often compelling and convincing to the judge and jury. The persuasive nature of eyewitnesses is often seen as “hard evidence” but can actually be misinterpreted and fallible. Additionally, police behavior impacts the likelihood of a wrongful conviction. Certain police interrogation methods can pressure the accused to make precipitous declarations. (Releases, 2001) This has been connection to the notion of “tunnel vision” in which police have a single-minded focus on one suspect. This focus leads to the exclusion of other potential suspects and relevant evidence that can show innocence. Moreover, reliance on highly skilled attorneys has given an advantage to those who can afford them. The reliance on skills and resources (human and budgetary) has given the prosecution an advantage that increase the chance of wrongful convictions. Law enforcement is constantly under public pressure to decrease crime rates and bring criminals to justice. This pressure can be connected a police officer’s tunnel vision during interrogation and investigation. Further, prosecutors play a role in the conviction of the accused through the overzealousness of certain evidence. Simultaneously, other potentially relevant evidence is ignored. Plea bargaining is also considered to be a coercive practice that can result in innocent individuals pleading guilty, especially with the aforementioned police practices. Criminal informants, who are individuals in custody who receive special treatment in return for evidence against another accused.

England and Wales

England and Wales, similar to the United States, has gained social consciousness on the reality of wrongful convictions.  The data begins with an overview of the criminal justice system.

Court System and rates

English and Welsh criminal justice system involves the Magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court. (GOV.UK, 2018) Criminal cases start out in the Magistrates’ courts and are heard by two or three magistrates, or a district judge. There is no jury in a magistrates’ court. Most cases they handle include summary offences that include motoring offenses, minor criminal damage, and common assault that does not involve significant injury to the victim. At times, it handles more serious cases such as burglary and drug offenses, but these cases are also heard in the Crown court. The Crown court receives more serious cases that pass the Magistrates’ courts: these ‘indictable crimes’ include murder, rape, and robbery. (GOV.UK, 2018) Additionally, the Crown courts hears appeals against the magistrates’ decision to convict or the sentence. The magistrates’ court tends to decide if the accused should be kept in custody until the Crown court hearing, or if eligible to bail. They also pass cases to the Crown court, if they believe that further trial or extended sentencing is necessary. Unlike, the Magistrates’ court, the Crown court has a jury that decides to whether one is guilty or not. The judge, based on the jury’s decision, decides the appropriate sentencing. A Crown court has the power to give a variety of sentences that range from community sentences to prison sentences that include life sentences. Given that the minimum conviction age is 10 in England, they are including in the data. In England, the eyes of the law consider adulthood to begin at the age of 18. (GOV.UK, 2018)

Data

It is important to notice that the majority of crimes never actually go through the criminal process that starts with arrest and ends in trial and conviction. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) provides data on the measure over time of crimes experienced.  In 2017 (with the year ending in June) CSEW estimated an occurrence of 5.8 million incidents of crime. (Statistics, 2018)

The Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted 80,090 cases in 2017 to 2018 in the Crown Court; the magistrates prosecuted 453,071 cases. (Service, 2018) Most of these cases tend to be complex, however, most suspects appear briefly before Magistrates who accept guilty pleas. Together, the Crown and Magistrates’ courts had 84.1% of the defendants prosecuted found guilty or pleaded guilty (Service, 2018). 77% of those defendants pleaded guilty. (Service, 2018) Such statistics tend to belie that popular notion that the criminal process starts with an arrest, leads to a trial, and ends with a conviction.

Additionally, the criminal process in England and Wales remains adversarial, but inquisitorial principles have been implemented, such principles include the reliance on expert witnesses and forensic evidence during the investigation and trials. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 lead to this inquisitorial addition, in which penalties are allowed if the accused does not actively participate by answering police questions and testifies in trial. (Archives, 1994)

A more recent reform is the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, provide, “a fair balance between rights of the prosecution and defense.” (Archive, 2018) Yet, other acts such as section 54 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 (CPIA) and Part 10 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have increased prosecutorial rights of appeal. CPIA includes a provision that deals with “tainted acquittals” (National Archive, 1996), while the latter removes double jeopardy for the accused. (Archive, 2018)

Thus, the previously mentioned legislation and more we didn’t consider have modified investigation, pretrial, and trial processes in recent years. This has had a firm trend against individual protection, which has had political push.

Recommendations

I have identified several factors that can lead to wrongful convictions, including forensic error, police misconduct, eyewitness misidentification, and prosecutorial misconduct. Wrongful convictions are a serious issue that is often unseen. Legal systems have a responsibility to deliver fair judgements and discover the truth. With increasing technology, evidence has become more crucial to the criminal justice system. However, evidence can be misused in trial by the prosecution. There is the notion that wrongful convictions are a bigger problem in adversarial systems There is a need to change the way adversarial systems manage trials and end the competition-oriented court systems. These systems focus on a ‘win’ (obtaining convictions) rather than the discovery of truth. Prosecutors and police officers’ goal and function is to search for the truth, catch the guilty, and protect the innocent. My hypothesis rested in the assumption that the jury trial (in the adversarial system) contributes to wrongful convictions. This can be due to inherent features that lead to errors or the inefficiency of identifying errors that appear during the investigation and trial. Of course, it is often recommended to improve the training of prosecutors (and defenders that are assigned by the state) and monitoring them. Additionally, other solutions considered have been the improvement of interrogation procedures and accreditation of laboratories that handle evidence. However, the issue lies in the structure of the adversarial system. My concern is not only the social construct of the issue but a concern over the public policy.

Bibliography

  • Archive, N. (2018). Criminal Justice Act of 2003. Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/44/contents
  • Archives, N. (1994). Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994. Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1994/33/contents
  • Courts, A. O. (2017). Federal Judicial Caseload Statistics 2017. Retrieved from http://www.uscourts.gov/statistics-reports/federal-judicial-caseload-statistics-2017
  • FBI. (2018, September 24). 2017 Crime Statistics Released. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2017-crime-statistics-released-092418
  • GOV.UK. (2018). Criminal COurts. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/courts
  • Gross, S. R. (2008). Convicting the Innocent. Annual Review of Law and Social Science.
  • National Archive. (1996). Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 . Retrieved from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1996/25/contents
  • Releases, M. N. (2001, November 5). SOPHONOW INQUIRY REPORT RELEASED. Retrieved from https://news.gov.mb.ca/news/print,index.html?item=25458&posted=2001-11-05
  • Service, C. P. (2018). Annual Report and Accounts 2017-2018. House of Commons.
  • Statistics, O. f. (2018). Crime in England and Wales: year ending in June 2018.
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