What factors can increase the risk of wrongful convictions?

Common contributing factors to wrongful convictions include witness testimony, false confessions, flawed forensic evidence and insufficient legal defense.

Many people who have been wrongly accused of criminal activity in Columbia have faith that their innocence will become clear over the course of criminal justice proceedings. Unfortunately, national data shows that this isn't always the case. The total number of wrongfully convicted individuals in the U.S. is unknown, but the National Registry of Exonerations states that 1,793 people have been exonerated to date. Troublingly, even more wrongful convictions may go unrecognized.

The factors underlying these convictions are frequently complex and may vary from case to case. However, research shows that the majority of wrongful convictions involve at least of the following factors.

Eyewitness testimony

Misidentifications on the part of eyewitnesses are the leading cause of wrongful convictions that have been overturned based on DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. These errors may occur due to the limitations of human memory and due to the procedures that authorities use to identify perpetrators. Research shows that, without adequate safeguards in place, authorities can bias a witness to pick a suspect or inflate a witness's confidence in an incorrect identification.

Given these factors, misidentification is a risk even when a person is accused of an offense, such as an alleged sex crime or violent crime, in which identification errors seem unlikely. Nationally, eyewitness testimony has played a role in 70 percent of convictions that were proven wrong through DNA testing. Here in South Carolina, eyewitness errors have contributed to half of all overturned wrongful convictions, according to the NRE.

Flawed forensic evidence

Many wrongful convictions, including one-third of those reported in South Carolina, involve false or misleading forensic evidence. As the Innocence Project notes, many widely used techniques, such as firearm tool mark analysis and hair microscopy, haven't been scientifically proven accurate or effective. Alarmingly, 47 percent of people who have been exonerated based on DNA evidence were initially convicted based on flawed forensic evidence.

In many cases, wrongful convictions may occur because the reliability of forensic methods is overstated in trial. For example, according to the Washington Post, the Federal Bureau of Investigation admitted in 2015 to giving flawed testimony for nearly two decades in trials involving state or federal criminal offenses. In 95 percent of the reviewed trials, the agency found that its analysts exaggerated the strength of matches made with hair microscopy analysis in a manner that favored prosecutors.

False confessions

More than one-quarter of wrongful convictions involve false confessions, according to the Innocence Project. Innocent people may give such confessions for various reasons, including:

  • Misunderstanding of the situation or their legal rights
  • Fear of physical harm or harsh sentencing if a confession isn't given
  • Exhaustion, intoxication or other factors that cause mental impairment
  • Coercion or duress

Unfortunately, confessions are often seen as one of the most compelling forms of evidence in a criminal case. Therefore, once a false confession is elicited, the likelihood of a wrongful conviction may increase significantly.

Insufficient defense

Wrongful convictions are also more likely to occur when a person does not have adequate legal representation. According to the NRE, inadequate legal defense has been a factor in one-third of South Carolina's wrongful convictions to date.

To address these risk factors, anyone accused of criminal activity in South Carolina should consider consulting with a private attorney in addition to his or her assigned public defender. A private attorney may be able to craft a thorough defense and help a person ensure that the potential shortcomings of eyewitness testimony, forensic evidence and self-incriminating statements are carefully weighed.