The Unjust Justice System
“Innocent until proven guilty.” This fundamental idea of the United States’ justice system to which every citizen has a right is undermined too often in today’s society. People may be incorrectly “proven guilty” and as a result, deemed “guilty until proven innocent.” Paradoxically enough, the very place in which justice ought to be the most predominant is ridden by miscarriages of judgment, or wrongful convictions. If wrongful convictions were extremely rare occurrences, they could — even then with great difficulty — be downplayed as the unfortunate result of inevitable human error; however, in reality, its high frequency violates the basic rights of US citizens and only blatantly displays the many faults in the judicial system. In such cases of misjudgment, the justice system fails to fulfill its sole mission: “to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans” (“About DOJ”).
Wrongful conviction is largely defined in two types: procedural error and factual innocence. Procedural error is a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights, and factual innocence is the incarceration of the wrong person (Gould and Leo 832). In either case, the extreme toll that such false convictions take on the wrongfully convicted is undeniable (Bishop and Osler 1031). It may be impossible to eliminate wrongful conviction altogether because of its nature in that the majority of it lies in human “error.” However, as cases of miscarriages of justice show no means of decreasing, it is evident that reforms must be made in order to alleviate the problem. Both the statistical data and the prevalence of the faulty processes that lead to misjudgments must be examined as the US government asks itself the question: “How prevalent is wrongful conviction in the US justice system?”
Wrongful conviction is usually the result of a combination of several factors. It is caused by errors such as eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, bias or investigational mistakes (Gould and Leo 841). Eyewitness identification is the most powerful — but also error-prone — methods of conviction. Often unintentional, misidentification occurs because memories are not only fallible, but also changeable. According to Michael Dorf, a Cornell law professor, the probability of misidentification is almost 50% — truly a “frightening statistic” considering convictions are determined on such testimony (Williams). As a result, eyewitness misidentification is the cause of 75% of wrongful convictions (Gould and Leo 841). One’s memory is determined by what one thinks he or she experienced and what he or she has been told. Under stress, memory is especially erratic; in court, it can easily be manipulated by the prosecution through visual or verbal enhancements. Simply “praising the witness” when he or she selects a certain individual can suggest a certain person as the offender (Gould and Leo 842).
Bias is another major contributor. It is the tendency to“focus on a suspect, select and filter the evidence that will build a case for conviction, while ignoring or suppressing evidence that points away” (Webster and Miller 981). Gender or race are leading factors. Bias is displayed clearly in statistics of exoneration. Women constitute 10% of the incarcerated population; in theory, this should be the same for the exonerated population — yet in reality the number is only 1.2% (Smith and Hattery 77). This indicates men are more likely to be wrongfully convicted. Furthermore, the disparity between African American and white men can be observed through the comparison of incarceration and exoneration rates. The incarceration rate is similar; however, African Americans are 8 times as more likely to be exonerated (Smith and Hattery 80). The majority of the exonerated men consists of African Americans, which indicates they are disproportionately more likely to be falsely convicted. Moreover, upon comparison of crime and exoneration rates, data displayed that although African American men commit 16% of rapes against white women, 87% of their exonerations are for this crime. In other words, African American men are four times more likely to be absolved for raping white women than the number of times they actually commit this crime (Smith and Hattery 83). Once a bias is formed, “much of the original information relevant to the suspect’s guilt is lost as it is selectively filtered…and the evidence that remains is interpreted without the full relevant context” (Leo and Davis 33).
Although the wrongfully convicted is the primary victim in a case of wrongful conviction, it is important to note that he or she is not the only victim. Undoubtedly, wrongful conviction disregards the rights of the convicted and affects his or her physical, mental, and social well-being. However, if the real victim is not incarcerated, the victim of the actual crime is at risk, along with possible future victims. The judicial system and prosecution are also affected as their credibility and trust from the public deteriorates immensely.
Perhaps most obviously, the wrongfully convicted must go through many psychological difficulties following jail time. For example, a study by Adrian Grounds at the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology reviewed that 14 out the 18 wrongfully convicted men studied demonstrated negative personality change. This is most likely induced by a traumatic experience. 12 of the 18 men showed symptoms qualifying for PTSD. Although these men were wrongfully convicted, they showed signs of trauma relating to their crime. For example, one man had “repeated nightmares of assaults in prison and panic attacks in response to police sirens” (Grounds). Moreover, many of the men displayed psychiatric disorders such as difficulty sleeping, paranoia, or chronic irritability. Jail time as a result of wrongful conviction has a high toll on the victim, deteriorating his or her basic health. In addition to such negative effects, the wrongfully convicted were also “released suddenly and without the preparation, support, and supervision from statutory services that are normally provided for long-time prisoners” (Grounds). The men explain the humility and shame that comes with having to readjust to the world and re-learn elementary skills (Grounds). In addition to the obvious loss of time that results from incarceration, the victims must also endure the harsh physical and mental effects during and after incarceration.
Indeed, with any analysis of wrongful conviction comes the counter argument that such miscarriages of justice are inevitable as human error is inevitable. Although this seems like a valid stance at first sight, it is completely unfounded. Because it is inevitable does not mean that it is not improvable. The issue of wrongful conviction is complicated because it not only involves numerous underlying causes — which themselves are also faults in the justice system — but also countless different groups of people that are affected. The challenge is to find a possible solution or method of reform that will significantly reduce the number of wrongful convictions in today’s courts while maintaining the rights of all parties. Although the exact probability of wrongful convictions cannot be determined, it is indisputable that it happens too often.
In order for the United States justice system to truly be “just,” a system must be implemented immediately to reduce the number of wrongful convictions. No longer can we use false testimonies, bias, or the like as an excuse for completely ignoring the rights of individuals. Wrongful conviction challenges the efficiency, honesty, and justness of the entire judicial branch. Miscarriages of justice should no longer have to be tolerated in the justice system.
“About DOJ.” The United States Department of Justice, www.justice.gov/about. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.
Bishop, Jeanne, and Mark Osier. “Prosecutors and Victims: Why Wrongful Convictions Matter.” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, vol. 105, no. 4, 1 Oct. 2016. Academic Search Premier [EBSCO], search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=120605700&site=ehost-live. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.
Gould, Jon B., and Richard A. Leo. “One Hundred Years Later: Wrongful Convictions after a Century of Research.” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, vol. 100, no. 3, Summer 2010, pp. 825–68. Academic Search Premier: EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=58547918&site=ehost-live. Accessed 2 Mar. 2017.
Grounds, Adrian. “Psychological Consequences of Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment.” Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, vol. 46, no. 2, Jan. 2004, pp. 165–82. Academic Search Premier: EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=11924013&site=ehost-live. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.
Leo, Richard A., and Deborah Davis. “From False Confession to Wrongful Conviction: Seven Psychological Processes.” Journal of Psychiatry & Law, vol. 38, no. 1/2, Spring-Summer 2010, pp. 9–56. Academic Search Premier: EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=52621172&site=ehost-live. Accessed 2 Mar. 2017.
Smith, Earl, and Angela Hattery. “Race, Wrongful Conviction & Exoneration.” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, Mar. 2011, pp. 74–94. Academic Search Premier: EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=57530019&site=ehost-live. Accessed 2 Mar. 2017.
Webster, Elizabeth, and Jody Miller. “Gendering and Racing Wrongful Conviction: Intersectionality, ‘Normal Crimes,’ and Women’s Experiences of Miscarriage of Justice.” Albany Law Review, vol. 78, no. 3, Oct. 2015, pp. 973–1033. Academic Search Premier [EBSCO], search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=108759277&site=ehost-live.
Williams, Patricia J. “Eye of the Beholden.” Nation, vol. 294, no. 6, 6 Feb. 2012, p. 10. Academic Search Premier: EBSCOhost. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.