Study identifies factors associated with wrongful convictions

A recent study identified 10 factors that are associated with wrongful convictions.

A wrongful conviction in South Carolina could have a profound effect on someone's future. Apart from the stigma attached to having a criminal record is the fact that the person could have to spend time in prison, pay fines and lose other freedoms.

A recent study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice identified 10 factors commonly associated with wrongful convictions. Knowing what those factors are and how to avoid them are key to protecting someone's rights.

The study

Published in December 2012, the study took a look at 460 cases to identify why, over the last few decades, there has been an increase in the number of innocent defendants who had been exonerated. The cases each involved either a wrongful conviction or what the researchers called a "near miss," in which a defendant was innocent and either found not guilty or had the charges against him or her dropped.

The overarching goal was to determine what separated the wrongful convictions from the near-miss cases. Researchers identified 10 factors, including the following:

  • An error in forensics
  • A misidentification or a non-eye witness lying
  • A family defense witness or a weak defense or weak prosecution
  • The state's punitive culture
  • Failing to disclose exculpatory evidence
  • The criminal history and age of the defendant

Based on these factors, the study's authors said they could predict a wrongful conviction 91 percent of the time.

Who is at risk?

Through evaluating these factors, researchers found that younger suspects with a prior criminal record are more likely to be wrongfully convicted. When it comes to forensic errors, the study's authors point out that it is not necessarily a mistake in the collection of the evidence, but rather an explanation of the evidence. Improper testimony about what the evidence means is more likely to lead to a wrongful conviction.

Systemic error

Another key finding from the study is that there are systemic errors that take place when three factors are present. When the prosecution's case is weak, they may develop tunnel vision and zero in on the wrong person instead of looking for other suspects. Additionally, if the prosecution fails to disclose exculpatory evidence and the defense is weak, it creates a "perfect storm" in which a wrongful conviction is imminent.

South Carolina laws

South Carolina does not have a law in place that has a compensation statute in place, which would provide a monetary award for people who are wrongfully convicted. As the Innocence Project points out, 32 states, the federal government and Washington, D.C., do have such statutes.

However, that does not mean that people who are wrongfully convicted cannot seek compensation. Anyone who has concerns about this topic should consult with a criminal defense attorney in South Carolina.